Celebrating her life, music, and 49-year Opry membership

To say that Jan Howard laid a strong foundation for country music and female artists is an understatement, but to really know her was to know her direct, no-nonsense view on life, peppered with a great sense of humor, a heart of gold, and what her friends call, “a zest for life.” 

Jan was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 49 years, and to her it was home and a place to gather with friends. Jan made her debut on the Opry stage in 1959 and had her first hit single the next year with “The One You Slip Around With.” It was a Top 10 hit that came with the title of Most Promising Country Vocalist of the Year by Billboard and Cashbox

Success in country music didn’t start as any kind of path for Jan. Born in West Plains, Missouri, one of 11 children, Jan survived many childhood, marital and motherhood struggles in her life, but she never wanted to be pitied. Only when her songwriter husband, Harlan Howard, heard her singing while doing the dishes, did performing come into her life and took her from California to Nashville, Tennessee.

And in Nashville, Jan did a whole lot of singing. She earned more than 20 top 40 singles, wrote top hits for artists that included Kitty Wells, Bill Anderson and Connie Smith, as well as made a name for herself on live shows with friends Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette and, of course, on the Opry stage. 

A Friend and Woman in Country

It was she, one of the early women of country music, who made a mark on the industry as a leading woman during a time when female artists weren’t seen as solo acts, and she who inspired other artists to do the same. Jeannie Seely, an Opry member since 1967, remembered her trip to Nashville to work on some recordings in 1963. There, she met a woman she looked up to, and would form a more than 50-year friendship. 

“She was so very nice, she came to the pool at the motel I was staying at —  she was going shopping and invited me to go,” Seely recalled. “And I was shocked because she was one of my heros. But I couldn’t go because I had to record some songs. When I moved to Nashville a year and a half later we became friends and have been friends ever since. We spent a lot of time together, we would coordinate our flights and share rooms on the road.”

They were close personal friends outside of the “business” too, shopping frequently, and having meals together often. In fact, it wasn’t odd when Jan would stop by Seely’s house and walk right through to the kitchen to get a snack before ever saying hello. 

“She had hypoglycemia, so I always had a variety of cheeses in the fridge for her, she needed protein,” recalled Seely. “We shared the stage a lot too, we had the same taste in clothes and would sometimes wear the same clothes on accident, we even went on stage in the same jacket, white with black piping, once when singing harmony with Bill Anderson… he kept looking back and forth at us, but never mentioned it. We thought it was funny.” 

It was a great time. We caught up on each other’s lives and we were always there to celebrate each other when there was a hit record or song, but also other times through struggles.” — Jeannie Seely

They weren’t the only friends in the group that soon became known as the Grand Ladies of the Opry. Jan, Jeannie Seely, Jean Shepard, and Jeanne Pruett were not just some of the main women in country music, but a group of women that developed a friendship that spanned decades. They all made their first appearances on the Opry stage when it was at Ryman Auditorium, some were welcomed with open arms, while some, like Jan, received some rejection at first. Their recollections of the time are captured perfectly and all together in the 2013 article, “The Grand Ladies of the Opry” in OxfordAmerica

“Back then, the ladies didn’t have dressing rooms at the Opry, we had to share a small ladies restroom,” said Seely. “It was a great time. We caught up on each other’s lives and we were always there to celebrate each other when there was a hit record or song, but also other times through struggles.”

Jan Howard posing with Doyle Wilburn. Taken by Les Leverett.

The Performer and Hitmaker

Jan’s solo hits spanned decades, including “Evil on Your Mind,” named one of country music’s 500 greatest singles by the book Heartaches by the Number; “Bad Seed;” and “Count Your Blessings, Woman;” to name a few. She also topped the charts while she performed with Bill Anderson on his syndicated TV show and tour with their duet “For Loving You.”

One song, in particular, was very personal to Jan. She penned a letter to her son, Jimmy, who was in Vietnam at the time. The letter turned song, “My Son,” was released just a few weeks before her son was killed in action in 1968. The song itself was difficult for Jan to record, emotionally, but once released, an outpour of letters from family of service members and soldiers came to her regarding the song and their own struggles with the war. Later in life, her subsequent work with the military and Vietnam veterans earned her the Tennessee Adjutant General’s Distinguished Patriot Medal, and in 2005, the Commander in Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented her the Medal of Merit. 

Although Jan performed on the Opry stage since the late 50’s, her induction came in 1971, solidifying her home in country music. Her lifelong membership made her a mainstay at the Opry House. She is also a sharp connection to country music’s past. She was connected and even rode across the country to shows with some of the biggest names in country music. She was there when genre-defining songs were written and recorded, and contributed to the era’s legacy herself.

“Actions speak louder than words, you know?” said Dan Rogers, Grand Ole Opry vice president and executive producer. “The thing that stands out to me about Jan and the Opry is the amount of time she would spend at the show interacting with everyone on stage and backstage on any given night. You don’t spend that much time at the Opry if you don’t love it and love the people there.”

And love it, she did. Rogers recalled that if she had an early performance, she would stick around to watch the other performers and catch up with friends. If she was on late in the show, she would often be there when the red curtain went up.

“I remember one Independence Day, Jan was scheduled late in the show, but she had spent her holiday evening on the side of the stage talking with everyone. I saw her backstage a couple of minutes before she was to perform when stage manager Tyler Bryan paged her over the speaker system, ‘Jan Howard to the stage, please. Jan Howard to the stage,’” remembered Rogers. “‘What in the world does he need?’ Jan said. I laughed, ‘He needs you to go out and sing like you’re here to do.’ She’d spent the night catching up with everyone, hanging backstage, and completely forgot that she hadn’t yet taken the stage herself. It was great.”

A Love for Life

Jan Howard and Bill Anderson perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

Although she saw many hardships in life that she recalled in her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, Jan loved to live, loved to find laughter and never wasted time on being ingenuine. 

“Jan loved to laugh and loved to be a catalyst for laughter. Even while she loved a good laugh and relished in a story about the old days, she was also a no-nonsense woman ready to tell you exactly what she thought no matter the consequences,” said Rogers. “I always thought that “Evil On Your Mind” was the perfect signature song for Jan. The lead “character” in the song is basically saying to her fella, ‘Ummm, yeah, you think you’re pulling something over on me, but I’m smarter than you and have you figured out, buddy boy.’ You didn’t ask Jan what she thought about something if you didn’t want her honest opinion.”

In regards to how to live life, Jan told her friends that life isn’t a rehearsal, that this is the one shot you get. 

“She was a feisty character. She could go from that million dollar smile to that stern look,” laughed Seely. “You always wanted to stay on the side of the smile, but she sure did have a heart of gold. I always admired my friend’s singing and writing too.”

A Genuine Leader

And while laughter and directness were her in her personality, she never put off supporting other people in the business and at the Opry. When Josh Turner was inducted in 2007, Jan was a big part of the backing he found. In fact, she was in the same segment as his induction. 

"She poured that emotion into her music and it was very effective on the stage. She had a strong presence and you felt that. You may not understand it, but you knew that she had lived a lot of lives." — Josh Turner

“I’ve always been a good judge of people and I could tell that she was a really strong woman,” said Turner. “The Opry feels like a second home to me —  they accepted me as one of their own and she was a huge part of that and was with me from the beginning. She was really tough and always spoke her mind. She poured that emotion into her music and it was very effective on the stage. She had a strong presence and you felt that. You may not understand it, but you knew that she had lived a lot of lives.”

Jan passed away at the age of 91 on March 27, 2020 in Gallatin, Tennessee. Her presence, history and good nature will be missed on the Opry stage, but not forgotten. Her music, stories and performances helped mold what is now the Grand Ole Opry show, as well as country music. Her unmoving support for the institution she called home never waivered.

“Jan loved and encouraged me, and I am absolutely certain she did the same for new artists with whom she felt a particular kinship or of whose music she was particularly fond of. It was probably a month before she passed away that I had a phone call during an Opry show,” Rogers recalled. “I picked up, and the person on the other end of the line said Jan wanted to talk with me. When I said hello, she offered that she just wanted to say she thought I was doing a good job and that she was proud of me. I’d be willing to bet she made several similar calls that night alone.”

Thank you Jan. Thank you for your music. Thank you for your love of the Opry. Thank you for being a pioneer woman in country music. 

“If I wanted you to remember one thing about Jan, it’s that she had such a zest for life,” Seely said. “She was always up for anything. I had a lot of memories that flooded in when I got the call, but the first one that came to mind was that she called me and I asked what she was doing. She said so nonchalantly, ‘Well, I just got through riding an elephant.’ That was Jan.”