Howard White might well have been a potential country music star, but for a mental disorder that he never properly understood, growing out of a nervous condition that was a direct result of military service. White was born and raised in Charlotte, NC, and during the 1930s became fascinated with the sound of the guitar. His parents weren't a musical influence on him, but a neighbor family, the Jamisons, used to gather together to play fiddles, guitars, and dobro, and he became enthralled with what they could do, eventually taking up the guitar himself. He was entirely self-taught, learning to play from listening to records and to songs on the radio, and he showed unexpected facility on the instrument. As a teenager, he bought a Hawaiian steel guitar and an amplifier from Sears, and in the course of learning the instrument, he established a correspondence with Jerry Byrd, the Cincinnati-based country steel guitar virtuoso who had emerged as a star in 1940; with a few pointers from his idol, he got really good on the instrument and also learned a thing or two about arrangements, and by the time he was in high school White was leading his own band, playing square dances and other gatherings.
The tragic side of White's life began when he became eligible for military service during World War II. He joined the United States Navy in 1944, and was attached to a unit in the chemical warfare branch. His job was testing gas-resistant uniforms, and he claimed to have developed nervous disorders growing out of his exposure to various toxins during those tests. After his release from military service, he resumed his music career, and spent some time playing with Don Gibson as part of his band on a show broadcast on KNOX out of Knoxville, TN, during the early '50s. He also worked with Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl in the early '50s, but it was Cowboy Copas who proved his most important contact and employer in the business. It was Copas who, as White's employer in 1953, heard some of the instrumentals that the guitarist had written and brought them to Fred Rose, who was one half of the Acuff-Rose music empire. Rose was impressed enough to publish them and also to set up a recording session to cut the songs in his Nashville garage studio, and release them subsequently on Acuff-Rose's house label, Hickory Records. The resulting pieces, pairing White's original material with public domain melodies, were entitled "Steel Guitar Dove," "Steel Guitar Swallow," "Ensonata," and "Rosette," all arranged by White, who played steel guitar alongside Strolling Tom Pritchard on bass, Luke Brandon on rhythm guitar, and Grady Martin doubling on guitar and mandolin.
The resulting tunes earned him a little bit of money as records and a bit more as compositions, but White still had to earn his living playing for others. The problem was that he had, since his navy days, developed an erratic personality, marked by almost irrational impatience -- and one thing that the music business demands of most of its players, but most of all its would-be stars, is patience and perseverance. He never had those qualities needed to pursue a career of his own and, by the same token, would become bored playing the same sets over and over as part of other people's bands, and quit long before any professional welcome would be worn out. In the space of a decade, he worked for a list of luminaries and legends that included Hank Williams, Cowboy Copas, Ferlin Husky, Audrey Williams, Jim Reeves, Judy Lynn, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Jean Shepard, Stoney Cooper, Mel Tillis, and Grandpa Jones, and his longest employer of all, Hank Snow, from 1960 through 1964 as one of the Rainbow Ranch Boys. He'd pretty well tired of touring by then, and in the decades since worked as a songplugger for Henry Strzelecki and as a promoter and publisher, among other jobs in the music business. In 1976, he also participated in his second official recording sessions of his career under his own name, through Strzelecki, which included Pete Drake, Buddy Spicher, and Pete Wade. Those sides, and his four early tracks for Hickory, were reissued in 1992 by Bear Family Records on CD, under the title Western Swing, on a CD credited to Howard White, not bad for a man who never got to release an LP. In between his gainful employment across the decades have also been hospitalizations and bouts of depression, and tests and diagnoses, most incorrect, all leading back to his World War II work in chemical warfare tests as a major cause -- if not the only cause -- of his difficulties. He subsequently wrote an autobiography, entitled Every Highway Out of Nashville. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi