NASHVILLE — Jan Howard, a pioneering woman in country music who wrote and sang about heartache and experienced it herself, died on Saturday at her home in Gallatin, Tenn., near Nashville. She was 90.
Her son, Carter, said the cause was pneumonia.
Ms. Howard broke into country music at a time when scarcely a handful of women — Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn among them — were consistently placing singles on the charts.
Originally a demo singer for songs intended for the likes of Ms. Wells and Ms. Cline, Ms. Howard had 20 hit singles in the country Top 40 from 1960 to 1972. Most were made for Decca Records under the renowned producer Owen Bradley.
Among her most successful recordings were her four Top 10 duets with the singer-songwriter Bill Anderson. “For Loving You,” a sentimental recitation, rose to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart in 1967.
Although Ms. Howard’s biggest hits were recorded with a male duet partner, she cultivated a plucky, resilient persona as a solo artist, singing about infidelity and marital strife at a time when such things were not addressed as frankly as they are now.
One of her two Top 10 hits from 1966, “Evil on Your Mind,” found Ms. Howard assuming the role of a woman whose husband is trying to ship her off with girlfriends for the weekend so he can be with his mistress.
Ms. Howard’s character has her doubts. “Us women are suspicious things,” she cautions him in a feisty drawl. “We know that men aren’t born with wings.”
Later, turning the tables on him, she gives her husband even more to think about, adding: “Don’t think that other men don’t look at me that certain way from time to time/Don’t think you’re the only one who must contend with evil on your mind.”
In a case of life imitating art, “Evil on Your Mind,” written by her husband at the time, the country songwriter Harlan Howard, captured the betrayal Ms. Howard would later feel when she found Mr. Howard in bed with another woman.
The Howards divorced in 1968, but not before Ms. Howard had established her own voice on dauntless, outspoken hits like “Bad Seed” and her own composition, “Marriage Has Ruined More Good Love Affairs.”
Jan Howard was born Lula Grace Johnson on March 13, 1930, in West Plains, Mo., the eighth of Rolla and Linnie (Shirley) Johnson’s 11 children. The Johnsons were a poor farming family; Ms. Howard’s father also worked as a brick mason through the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
Raped at the age of 8 by a friend of her father’s, she kept the ordeal from her family until she discussed it in “Sunshine and Shadow,” her autobiography, published in 1987.
“My body was violated and my mind was damaged in a way I wasn’t to know the full extent of for years to come,” she wrote.
Ms. Howard experienced trauma throughout her life, including the violent deaths of two of her sons. Jimmy, her eldest, was killed by a land mine in Vietnam shortly after Ms. Howard had converted a letter she had written to him, expressing concern for his safety, into a 1968 recording for Decca called “My Son.” David, her youngest, committed suicide in 1973.
Ms. Howard first married at 16 and by 20 had become the mother of three. Divorced at 24 (a brief second marriage was annulled), she moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s and married Mr. Howard in 1957.
Painfully shy, Ms. Howard always dreamed of singing but lacked the courage to do so in front of an audience. It was only when her husband heard her singing while she was washing dishes that he discovered she had an appealing voice.
Mr. Howard soon asked her to sing the demo for “Mommy for a Day,” a song he and Buck Owens had written for Kitty Wells, who had a Top 10 hit with it in 1959.
Ms. Howard then signed a recording contract with Gene Autry’s Challenge label, for which she had two Top 40 country hits. In 1960 “The One You Slip Around With” earned her “most promising country female” honors from the Jukebox Operators of America.
The Howards moved to Nashville later that year. Ms. Howard also signed with Capitol Records but, after one minor hit, switched to Decca, where she would achieve her greatest success, both as a solo artist and with Mr. Anderson.
The Howards’ fraught marriage often contributed to Ms. Howard’s poor mental health, leading to admissions to psychiatric hospitals.
After they divorced, Ms. Howard increasingly turned to songwriting, in part to support her family. She and June Carter co-wrote “Christmas as I Knew It,” a recitation recorded by Johnny Cash. Ms. Howard also sang the words “Mama sang tenor” on Mr. Cash’s No. 1 country hit “Daddy Sang Bass.”
At her death, Ms. Howard had been a member of the cast of the Grand Ole Opry for 49 years.
In addition to her son, she is survived by two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Shortly after the Howards moved to Nashville, Ms. Howard sang the demo for “I Fall to Pieces,” a song written by her husband and Hank Cochran that became Patsy Cline’s first No. 1 country hit.
Upon hearing “I Fall to Pieces” for the first time, Ms. Howard said in an online interview, she told her husband, “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.”
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