Country music and Grand Ole Opry legend Jan Howard passed away on Saturday, March 28th at the age of 91. And though her passing was a sad moment, it’s one where you can be at peace knowing she lived a fruitful and fulfilling life, and left behind a legacy that will be lasting and cherished.
Jan Howard’s death was marked with obituaries enumerating her many accomplishments in country music, including her hits, her collaborations with Bill Anderson, and her long tenure at the Grand Ole Opry. But when it comes to Jan Howard, it was just as much about the work she did off the stage, and out of the spotlight that makes her memory and her legacy so lasting.
Those who know the story of Jan Howard, know about the tragedies that marked her life, including the loss of two of her three sons. One of her sons died of a suicide, and the other was killed in Vietnam. This was the inspiration behind her 1968 hit “My Son.” Howard was known as being a strong supporter of the military throughout her life. Her recount of when anti-war protesters came to her door, and she told them she 100% respected their right to protest, but if they ever came back, warned them, “I’ll blow your head off with a .357 Magnum,” is a legendary anecdote of country music history.
But Jan Howard’s commitment to supporting military members was not skin deep, or relegated to patriotic anthems pandering to country music’s red meat fan base like some country stars of today. Upon Jan Howard’s passing, many grateful servicemembers and others have been coming forward sharing their stories of Howard’s selfless contributions to their lives. The cameras, microphones, and reporters weren’t always around, and accounts of her good deeds weren’t disseminated via press release. But quietly, Jan Howard was doing more than her part to keep the fabric of America together, and in many different ways.
“When I was still deployed with the 101st Airborne Division to Afghanistan in 2008-2009, I had signed up for a site that paired soldiers with penpals and folks to talk to while we were deployed,” Mack McKenzie tells Saving Country Music. Shortly, after I had signed up, I received an email from a woman named Jan Howard. She told me how her son was in Vietnam, and how she supported us.”
On November 8th, Jan Howard wrote to Mack McKenzie for the first time.
My name is Jan Howard, and I’ve been in country music for most of my life. But that isn’t a requirement. Not sure what your music preferences are but I like some of all, and not all of everything; Do you have anything there to play cds or videos on? If you were to receive some, what would you like?
I understand you’re from Cleveland…have been there many times. The people in Ohio have been very good to country music. I don’t want to keep going on about me. If you will, I’d like to know more about you. Just to get acquainted. I see your home base is Fort Campbell, KY. 101st Airborne. One of my sons is retired 101st but spent time in another war: Vietnam.
I understand you’re now in Afghanistan and have eight months to go Aaron, I don’t want to be nosy. But I’d like to send you some things, and would really like to know what you would like or need. They send me a list but would rather you choose. I had two sons in Vietnam at the same time. One only wanted V8 juice. Since I’ve told you about my sons, I’ll tell you I’m probably old enough to be your grand mother. But I love my grandchildren. Write when you can and be safe.
This was the start of a correspondence and a friendship that would cross generations and continents, and would find a common understanding in the love and appreciation for country music.
“All support received is always greatly appreciated,” Mack wrote back the next day. “I grew up watching the Opry with my father and grandparents. I also have a wide taste in music. I have always enjoyed country music. I think some of Hank Williams, and Jr’s songs were the anthem for my family and my life before joining the military. That was mostly my dad’s choice in music, old and new country, bluegrass. My grandpa to this day still listens to bluegrass, he loves it and country music. He just can’t seem to get enough. They were the ones that got me liking old country music. Willie, Waylon, Cash, and Hank.”
Jan Howard’s response proved that she wasn’t just a strong supporter of the troops, she was a strong supporter of true country music.
“It’s strange to hear ‘old country music,'” Jan Howard wrote back. “But that’s the way it is. I never knew Hank Sr. but do know Jr. and the others you mentioned were/are all dear friends. Did you get to see the CMA Awards show? Brad Paisley and Keith Urban opened the show with an instrumental….fantastic! But except for George Strait, and Alan Jackson, didn’t care for most of the rest.”
Along with keeping a correspondence with Mack McKenzie through his deployment, Jan Howard also sent him a care package from the Grand Ole Opry. Along with the regular allotment of snacks from back home, it also included about 15 CDs from the Opry gift shop, and a book on the Opry that Howard got all the Opry performers on November 21st, 2008 and others to sign, including Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Terri Clark, “Little” Jimmy Dickens, Stonewall Jackson, Hal Ketchum, Patty Loveless, Jimmy C. Newmann, Jean Shepard, and others. Now many of those Opry greats, including Jan Howard, are no longer around.
After Mack McKenzie’s 15 month deployment to Afghanistan and four year commitment to the Army, he moved back to Ohio, becoming a country singer and songwriter. He released his debut album A Million Miles in 2016, and his most recent album Kill The Buffalo in 2019.
“My interactions with Jan was undoubtedly an initial spark to light the fuse to pursue making my own music in the country direction,” says McKenzie. “At the time I was listening to hard and alternative rock, as I had lost interest in country music post 90’s era. It became significantly less interesting to me … My email conversations with Jan had me wanting to seek out her music and listen to it. To be completely honest, at the time I wasn’t really sure if I would like it or not … I listened to the entire album she sent me of her music, and for whatever reason ‘Love Is A Sometimes Thing’ jumped out at me. That particular performance and song is where my appreciation for songwriting began, which ultimately led me to writing my own music.”
Mack McKenzie, like many, are coming forward to share their stories of Jan Howard’s selflessness, and influence that they feel should be remembered right beside her accomplishments in music.
“Add on to Jan’s legacy, from a solider who at the time only knew of the Opry from his grandparents, and a now country musician who truly understands and wishes he knew just who he had been blessed by knowing.”