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Jan Howard: I'll Never Lose The Butterflies

Posted by: Petr Mecir

Interviews 06/20/2015

Jan Howard is an Opry legend, who has been stepping into the sacred wooden circle for 55 years now. She has made a significant mark in country music and she's rightfully a beloved member of the Opry family. I met with lovely Jan in Nashville one afternoon and we talked about her life and carreer milestones as well as her more recent activities.

Is it true that you were discovered while washing dishes?

"Well, I was married to Harlan Howard at the time. We'd been married a year and he'd never heard me sing, because I didn't sing in front of anyone, I was very very shy. I was singing in the kitchen and I didn't know he was there. And he said 'was that you?' and I said 'yeah" and that started the whole thing. And it was good. I believe that things are already mapped up for us. We're in the right place we're supposed to be at the time we're supposed to be there. So evidently that was the time."

It sounds like the American Dream, from the kitchen to the Grand Ole Opry.

"That's true. If certain things hadn't happened, then something else wouldn't have happened. That's what I mean. It's all pre-planned for us I believe."

I heard that the song "I Fall To Pieces" was supposed to be yours.

"Yes. Well, it was right after we moved to Nashville. We were living in a little rented house, it was hot and it was humid and there was no airconditioning. When we first moved here, I hated it. And Hank Cochran came over one day and said he had a great idea but he couldn't put it together. So he came in and Harlan and I, we had a little room we turned into where we could do a demo. We went back there and I set on a desk listening to them as 'I Fall To Pieces' was being written. And I said 'oh, I love that song!' Now I don't like that song. But anyway, I said 'that's my song' and he said 'yes, that's your song'. So I made the demo on it. And then Harlan came home one day and said 'guess who's gonna record I Fall To Pieces?'. I said 'I am' and he said 'no, Patsy.' I can't repeat here what I said, but it was not good. And I said I should have divorced him then, but I didn't. But Patsy did a great job on it and I guess it was meant to be.

Jan HowardIt must have been such a disappointment. Were you sad about it for a long time?

"No, after she recorded it, I knew it was hers. When Patsy sang a song, she did claim the song, not verbally, but emotionally. She commanded that performance. She was wonderful and she was a great friend. But I still don't sing that song. I don't sing her songs, I really don't. I'm probably the only female artist that's never sung 'Crazy'. I do not sing 'Crazy'.

Please tell me about your friendship with Patsy. From what I heard most people didn't get along with her.

"If she liked you, she'd love you. And if she didn't, she told you so. She was very outspoken, but she respected people who stood up to her. And I did. And she said 'you know, we're gonna be good friends,' and we were. We were definitely good friends. I was also great friends with Hawkshaw Hawkins and all the other people in that plane crash. Hawkshaw was married to Jean Sheppard at the time and we, Harlan and I, were over there just the night before they left to go to Kansas City. A very sad time in country music."

I know that you were in Prague with Johnny Cash in 1978. What can you remember about that tour?

"I remember it was beautiful but that was behind the Iron Curtain and we couldn't go anywhere without guards and all that stuff. We went to one area, one shop where I bought some porcelain. I handcarried that home all the way from there to Nashville. It was beautiful. I wish we had had an opportunity and a privillege to travel more in there, but we couldn't at that time. I'm glad it's changed."

Was it your first trip to Eastern Europe?

"Yes. We came through East Berlin and it was not a good time to be there."

What was it like to tour with Johnny Cash at the time?

"It was interesting. It was alright. He was very charismatic, of course. I had known John since 1957 and we were friends. He was very charismatic and the people loved him."

Your life has been filled with so many ups and downs, successes and achievements on one side and personal tragedies on the other. I love the song My Son. What kind of responses did you get when you recorded that song?

"All positive. But it was not a song, it was a letter I wrote to my oldest son who was in Vietnam. His name is Jimmy. And my middle son was home before he was going to in Vietnam, because he was also in military. And I wrote this letter and for some reason it was more than a letter and I didn't know what to do with it. I read it to my middle son, his name is Carter, and he said 'mom, you need to put that to music.' He said Jimmy would be so proud. It took me a couple of weeks and I sang it to Bill Anderson and he said 'you need to do that'. It took a long time and then I finally did, but I couldn't seem to get through it. I knew it was more than a letter. I recorded it one time, one take. And I got a 7 and 1/2 real tape at that time and I sent it to Jimmy. I said 'I have a surprise for you' and I sent it to him. And he was killed right after that. I never got to hear from him. But one of his friends said he used his tape recorder to play it and that he was so proud and he cried. I understand they played it every day in Vietnam like the national anthem. And I still get so many requests for it, but I can't do that. I do it once in a great while only for a special thing like Veterans' Day."

Jan HowardYour partnership with Bill Anderson is legendary. Do you still get to tour with him nowadays?

"No, but once in a while we happen to be booked on the same show. I've done all the Country Family Reunions and he hosts that. Bill and I have been friends since 1959 and we worked together, recorded together and did the roadshow together and everything for 7 years. And then I quit because I lost my youngest son and I just had to quit. And I quit for quite a while. But those days were good. Bill and I are still good friends and every now and then we sing a duet together on the Opry, not too often. We had a good working relationship and several successful duets and I think five albums together. We had a great roadshow."

How do you feel about playing the Opry after so many years? Hasn't it become a routine for you?

"No, it should never be a routine. Minnie Pearl told me one time, I asked her if she ever got nervous and she said 'Nervous? No. But butterflies? Yes! 'Cause that's adrenaline and anticipation.' And she said 'When you lose the butterflies, you need to quit. Because that means you're taking it for granted.' I mean I may quit someday, but I'll never lose the butterflies."

"To me the Opry is more than a building. And it's not a building. It's the people. But standing on the center circle, where so many great artists have stood, is always an honor. And it will continute to be an honor. I may quit tomorrow, I don't know, but that will never leave the honor of being a member of the great institution. I'm very honored to have been there for all these years. As of now, I've been a member for 43 years, but I appeared there 10 years before I actually was made a member. Everybody thought I was, Bud Wendell, when he became the manager of the Opry, he thought I was until I told him I wasn't. He said 'well, you are now, so be there Saturday night'. That's how I was made a member. It was great."

Do you feel that the respect for the Opry from young artists remains the same like it used to be decades ago?

"No, not particularly. Well, some of them don't even know what it means. They really don't. And then there's other who grew up with it and know about it. I remember one day there was a young female artist appearing there and we were all back sharing a dressing room. And her mother was actually with her. I guess she was 18 or 19, I don't know, early 20's. So I welcomed her, I introduced myself, which meant nothing to her and I welcomed her to the Opry and I hoped she would enjoy her experience there and I said 'look on the wall here and see pictures of a lot of people that have paved the way for you to be here as I did'. I said 'Kitty Wells and Jean Sheppard, they paved the way for me to be here'. And she said 'who's Kitty Wells?' And I said 'Excuse me? You don't know who Kitty Wells is?' She said 'no...'. I said 'oh, really? Well, I take back everything I said.' I said 'You don't deserve to be here'. And I said 'Enjoy it, you may never be back'. And I'm sure I've never seen her back. So that was very sad that she didn't know Kitty Wells and nothing about country music."

Jan HowardSometimes I can hear some criticism that they induct new people too early in their carreers.

"That's right, they do."

But on the other hand, Bill Anderson or George Hamilton IV, they were inducted in the early 60's right after they started out. Garth Brooks was inducted in 1990...

"Yeah, but they had had hit records. I think they should have made a mark before they appear as a guest. When I appeared as a guest at that time, I had a Top 10 record. But you couldn't be a guest on the Opry unless you had something that the audience would know who you were or who you are, so they would buy a ticket."

And on the other hand there are artists who got inducted recently such as Charlie Daniels, Mel Tillis, the Oak Ridge Boys and they had to wait for over 40 years for this.

"Yeah, forty years, that's ridiculous. There are still so many out there that deserve to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. And they probably never will be. The same way with the Hall of Fame. I don't believe in politics but I think it has a lot to do with it and I don't like that. This time the new inductees as we're speaking now (2013), Bobby Bare, Jack Clement and Kenny Rogers, I mean they're all legends. And yet Kenny Rogers and Bobby are in different years, different categories. Jack Clement is one of the great writers and producers. So I'm glad that they made the Hall of Fame. Bobby and his wife Jeannie, they are my closest friends. I've known both since '57. I called to speak to Jeannie the other day, Bobby answered the phone and I said 'is this the one and only Bobby Bare?' And he's always called me Jan Howard. The whole family calls me Jan Howard, they don't call me Jan. Well, Jeannie does. And he said 'Yeah, this is Bobby Bare, the Hall of Famer'" (laughs) "And I said 'yes, yes, yes!' So I'm thrilled for that. He's a great entertainer."

Do you still write new songs?

"I write, but I haven't done anything with them. Right now I write a little bit of everything. Poems and stuff, short stories, and I just put them in a big envelope. I need to put those together, I need to go through them. And I found things in there that I forgot I wrote and I said 'oh, this is pretty good' or 'this is bad'. So right now I'm gonna put those all together and put them in a leather bound book. Those are pieces of my mind and some are pretty good, some are pretty personal."

Jan HowardI noticed that your autobiography has become a pretty rare collectible. I saw that somebody sells it on Amazon for 275 dollars!

"Really? You gotta be kidding. Wow! Tell them to go to my website. I'll give it to them a lot cheaper! Really, that's amazing. You know, I don't deal with Amazon. People say 'why don't you put your book on there?' Evidently it's on there and I didn't know it. Because that takes the personal side out of it. When people buy it on Amazon, I can't autograph it. I can't thank them. But if they buy it from my website, or the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, I can always go there and sign it for them. I like to personalize it. I turned down three movies, because I didn't want it to be a movie, because all they do is ruin it and they put their words in there and not mine. And I just said 'no, I don't wanna do that'. And they said 'do you realize what you're turning down?'. I said 'yes, a lot of heartache, and a lot of baloney. I don't want you to have control of my book."

Your book captures your lifestory until 1973. Have you considered writing a part II?

"No, I'm not gonna tackle anything like that now. You know, the way I figure at this time of my life, every moment is precious and I wish I thought like that a long time ago. But I've put my priorities in order. I've had a lot of requests for writing another book, to write a follow up, but I'm not gonna do that, because you're sitting in front of a typewriter or a computer all day long and there's more to life. There's a lot of life out there. Like today, I'm driving down here and I'm really glad to do this interview and to meet you. And I'm trying to get packed and go to England. But I really like to go on a golf course, be in the fresh air and enjoy it. A great writer, speaker, her name was Mae Axton, she was the mother of Hoyt Axton, she was a good friend. And she told me one time, she said 'writing is not meant to replace living' and she is exactly right. I'd rather do it than write about somebody else doing it. Whatever it is. So I'm not gonna write another book. I'll continue to write, but now I would like to write fiction. And I have three started and I may write right now based on some other things, based on the truth maybe" (laughs)

Is it related to the music business?

"Not neccessarily. The three that I have started, one of them is, the other two totally off the wall, I don't know. My mind goes in all different directions. But I may do some short stories, I don't know. I think every day is an adventure and it just depends on what happens and what comes up. If somebody says 'hey let's go to Timbuktu or something, then alright, let's do it."

Thank your for the interview.

Jan Howard & Petr Mecir
(Jan Howard & Petr Mecir)



Jan Howard - "My Son"





Jan Howard - "Evil On Your Mind"




(C) Petr Mecir 2015. All rights reserved.