Jan Howard death: How the grand dame of country music triumphed over rape, mental illness and tragic loss

In her autobiography, 'Sunshine and Shadow', Howard chronicles healing from the trauma of rape, marital abuse, infidelity, financial crisis, mental illness and death of a child


                            Jan Howard death: How the grand dame of country music triumphed over rape, mental illness and tragic loss
Jan Howard (Getty Images)
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The world of country music mourns a great loss today. Legendary musician and Grand Ole Opry veteran Jan Howard died at the age of 91. The Opry released a statement announcing the chart-topping hitmaker's death, revealing that she died on Saturday in Gallatin, Tennessee. But as the celebrated singer is being showered with tributes pouring in social media all over, one can't help but look back at the life Howard had lived; or endured, if you will. Struggling with marital abuse, suicidal tendencies and death of a child, Howard's life meandered beyond her three marriages, the first out of which happened to be at the age of 16.

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Born as Lula Grace Johnson in 1930, Jan was the eighth of the 11 children being raised in by an impoverished farm couple, back during the Great Depression. As she grew up there, near West Plains, Missouri, her love for Grand Ole Opry blossomed and she began dreaming about becoming a country singer, reports Music Row. Her dreams were followed by the nightmarish reality of being raped by one of her father's friends at the age of eight. As she kept it a secret from her family, she also dropped out of school to get married at 16, something that cumulated in marital abuse and three sons. Her husband's violent beatings led to her leaving with their three sons and a nervous breakdown. Luckily, that ended when she was able to get a divorcee in 1953.

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Next came another marriage, this time to a military man. Jan soon learned he was already married and left with her three sons once again, this time on a bus to California. Once in the West coast, Jan met Harlan Howard, whom she married in 1957. Their marriage braved two miscarriages, and a hysterectomy at the age of 27, but as she recovered, Harlan discovered her gem of a voice as she sang while washing dishes one evening. It was the first time she had sung in front of someone, but Harlan was left so stunned that he taped her singing his song, 'Mommy For a Day', and sent the recording straight to Nashville.

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Singer-songwriter Bobby Bare, wife Jeannie Bare (L) and CMHOF member Jan Howard (R) attend the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Medallion Ceremony (Getty Images)

Once Kitty Wells' version hit in 1958, Jan became the go-to voice to record demos for her husband's songs. With Harlan's faith in her future as a professional singer, Jan signed with Challenge Records, who made her change her original name 'Grace' to Jan. Soon came other songs by her husband, like 'Pick Me Up on Your Way Down' and 'I Wish I Could Fall in Love Today' (1957-'58) and eventually her first solo hit with his 'The One You Slip Around With' in 1960. The family moved to Nashville later in the year, and as Jan's success soared, she fell prey to anxiety. Plagued by phobias of heights, open spaces, darkness, and crippling stage fright, Jan was institutionalized by Harlan. And after therapy, calls for her to do guest appearances on the Opry resumed once again.

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As she became a permanent alum of the esteemed Opry, Jan and Harlan's collaboration resulted in multiple hits, before falling apart in 1967, once she learned of his infidelities. In the end, Jan also claimed that Harlan denied her any rights to their business, by duping her out of her half before their 1967 divorce. Jan's passion for singing had to turn to a necessity to sustain herself and her kids. In those times, Opry star Bill Anderson supplied her with the songs 'Bad Seed' (1966), 'Count Your Blessings Woman' (1968), 'I Still Believe in Love' (1968) and 'The Soul You Never Had' (1970), along with their duets, while Jan flourished in songwriting too.

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Recording artists Jan Howard and Bill Anderson attend Webster Public Relations - Unofficial Kick-Off CRS Event - Legendary Lunch at The Palm Restaurant on February 25, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty Images)

In 1968’s Jan penned 'My Son', a letter to her son who was serving at the time in Vietnam. Anderson asked her to record the moving ode, and Jan caved after much reluctance and reportedly wept throughout the recording session. The touching plea of a mother begging her son to return home safe was met with tragedy within two weeks of its release; Jan’s son Jimmy was killed in the war. As she mourned, Jan received over 5,000 letters from soldiers and their parents, who resonated with her emotions in the Grammy-nominated single meant to them. And even before Jan could ever perform it alive, four years later, her youngest son, David, committed suicide when he was just 21. The singer, dancer and actor used to perform at the Opryland theme park. 

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As she was coping with the loss, June Carter and Johnny Cash helped Jan by taking her on the road with them and adding her as a backup in some of Cash's hits. Tammy Wynette also hired Jan to become a member of her ensemble, following which she toured internationally with the troupe. In 1987, Jan published her autobiography, which chronicles how she put on a brave face and endured a life filled with adversities. She claimed the book, 'Sunshine and Shadow', was written as part of therapy while she battled suicidal tendencies. 

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Later in the 90s, and the 2000s, Jan became more actively involved with veterans' issues. Her autobiography, which came after trauma from rape, marital abuse, infidelity, financial crisis, mental illness and death of a child, is deemed one of the most moving autobiographies in the country music genre. Survived by one of her three sons, Carter A Howard, and his wife Pamela, Jan also has two grandchildren, Mitsi H Lindsay (Keith), Anita H Simpson (Travis), and three great-grandchildren, Cole, Alli, and Charlie.

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