|Country Music "Remembers" by Gary Hayes
HOWARD WHITE 1926-2008
I met Howard White and his wife Ruth in the late 1980s when Lycrecia Williams and I
were writing Still In Love With You, our biography of her parents Hank and Audrey Williams.
Howard had actually toured briefly with Hank Williams Sr. in 1952, but we primarily wanted
to talk to him about playing steel guitar with Miss Audrey's band in 1958-9. The other
members of that band were Ken Marvin (the original Lonzo of Lonzo and Oscar) on guitar,
Goober Buchanan on bass, and Buddy Spicher on fiddle.
Howard described Audrey as straightforward and opinionated, businesslike and confident.
He liked and respected her a lot, and the two even had a brief "fling" during a tour of Alaska.
Howard, Ruth, and I kept in touch over the years, and I was so shocked and saddened to hear of Howard's passing on October
19, 2008. Ruth said he had not been sick, but had passed peacefully in his sleep at their home in Gallatin, Tennessee.
Rest in Peace, dear Howard. I loved you and your crazy ways from the first time we met. I thought you were hilariously funny,
smart, courageous, and always upbeat. You will be missed... dv
In 1992 I wrote the notes for a Bear Family CD release of Howard's recordings called "Western Swing and Steel Instrumentals."
Here's part of what I wrote:
"The Bible says it rains on the just and the unjust and I guess that's how I've come to accept my lot in life," is the opening line of
Chapter Three of Howard and Ruth White's book, Every Highway Out of Nashville. Howard then proceeds to tell his story of
growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, of being used as a human guinea pig by the U.S. Navy in their research on chemical
warfare during WWII, and of his life and adventures as a musical sideman. ("I've never been a star, I've always been a sideman,
but there's satisfaction in a job well done.")
As much of a humorist as a musician, Howard White is loved in the country music world for his steel guitar playing and his
storytelling alike. ("... was an excellent musician - and, he was very short. I wanted to offer him a drink one time, but I was scared
it'd make him high.")
Howard's earliest musical influence did not come from his own family, but from his neighbors, the Jamisons, who would gather
on their front porch in the evenings and play old songs on their stringed instruments. Howard taught himself how to play guitar
from records and the radio; later, when he bought a Hawaiian steel guitar and amp from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, he
wrote his idol Jerry Byrd in Cincinnati, who wrote him back, offering valuable advice on tuning and string arrangements. While in
high school, Howard formed a band that played at square dances and other local social events.
When Howard White joined the U.S. Navy in 1944, he was assigned to special services at a naval air base in Washington D.C. in
the chemical warfare branch where, he wrote: "My job for my country was not to fight, but to test uniforms, with me in them,
against gas... They put me, and others, in special gas chambers and turned on the gas to see if the suits leaked. Some of the
guys were burned. I developed a nervous condition which grew worse and worse." He was to spend his life in and out of
hospitals, improperly diagnosed for nearly 40 years and to this day, insufficiently acknowledged and/or compensated by the U.S.
Howard played steel guitar for Don Gibson on WNOX (Knoxville) Radio's Mid Day Merry-Go-Round for about a year in 1951-2,
then moved to Nashville to work with "Waltz King" Cowboy Copas on the Grand Ole Opry. He toured briefly with Minnie Pearl and
Hank Williamas Sr., then returned to work with Copas until Copas disbanded his group in 1953. A pattern was established of
working a succession of jobs with different artists: Ferlin Husky, Audrey Williams, Jim Reeves, Judy Lynn, Hawkshaw Hawkins
and Jean Shepard, Wilma lee and Stoney Cooper, Red Sovine, Mel Tillis, Grandpa Jones, the Duke of Paducah, and lastly, in his
longest stretch with any single artist (1960-64), Hank Snow. As Howard explained, "An act would only add about two new songs a
year to [their] program and it got boring to a hyper person like myself." He believes now that if he had understood more about his
manic-depressive disorder, "Maybe I could have stood songs like I'm Movin' On one more time. But as it was, I just kept movin' on
to greener pastures. I knew every highway out of Nashville by heart." [From his book, Every Highway Out of Nashville.]
In the mid-60's, having come to despise life on the road, Howard turned from playing and has spent much of his time since then
going "from pillar to post" in the various roles of songplugger, promoter, and music publisher. Like many of the musicians of his
generation, he has come to know everyone in - and all aspects of - the music business.
"Us old sidemen who used the work the Opry spots and the one-nighters," he writes, "are mostly not playing now. We're
scattered to all walks of life... But I've met a lot of people I'm proud to know, too many to name. There are a few who love me."
"Western Swing and Steel Instrumentals" is available from Bear Family Records.
Every Highway Out Of Nashville is currently (and unfortunately) out of print.
Ruth White is also the author of The Original Goober (The Life and Times of James G. Buchanan) and You Can Make It If You Try
(The Ted Jarrett Story of R&B in Nashville)
Howard and Ruth White's hilarious book of Southern humor (with illustrations by Steel Guitar Hall-of-Famer Billy Robinson) Grits,
Red Eye Gravy, and Wisdom Southern Style is available on our web store Hank and Audrey's Corral