According to authorities, Howard was fatally shot after opening fire on a bail bondsman who showed up to his Lynchburg, Tenn., cabin to arrest the country singer. The bondsman was also struck by a bullet but expected to live.
The gunfight was a fitting end to a life full of raunchy lyrics and reckless living.
Howard first broke into the business in 1983 with a single so scandalous country radio stations refused to play it. “All-American Redneck” was a one-man wrecking ball of a ballad.
“Here he comes in his brand new black blue jeans / With a beach blonde mama, she looks like a bar room queen,” the song began. “He’s got a beer gut belly, and he walks tall and proud / And if you try to get smart with him, he’ll punch you out!”
The song went on to include references to “smoking grass” and kicking, well, you can guess, that got it banned from radio stations. But that didn’t stop the song from selling. Howard’s record label chose to “circumvent radio and go instead to jukeboxes,” selling 45,000 copies within just a few weeks, according to a 1983 article in Billboard magazine. Soon, “All-American Redneck” bumper stickers were appearing all across the South.
The song made Howard rich and famous, at least compared to the crowds he captivated in rowdy honky-tonks. He went on to release six more records and perform alongside country music legends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr., according to Howard’s MySpace page.
“Howard is one of those vocalists who — like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson — isn’t going to win a lot of prizes for vocal wizardry, yet manages to compel you to listen,” wrote a Chicago Tribune critic in 1988. “And what you hear is often worth listening to: a well-produced album moving comfortably around from pop-country to country-rock to acoustic country blues and even gospel; an above-average collection of 12 songs (8 of which were written or co-written by Howard himself); and a voice that holds your attention by sounding as if it belongs to a real person instead of a star.”
But, as Howard documented in his music, alcohol and drug abuse took its toll. One of his most famous songs, “My Nose Don’t Work No More,” summed up Howard’s reputation as a lovable loser who undermined his own success.
“There ain’t no business like this business that I’m living in / I’ve got so damn much money and it keeps on rollin’ in,” the song began. “Lincoln continentals and gold records on the wall / I’ve got all I need but I can’t hardly breath at all / ’cause my nose don’t work no more, not like it did before / I snorted all that stuff they said was going to help me play / but I guess it’s alright anyhow for if I’d known what I know now / I’d probably would’ve blown it anyway.”
Songs such as “My Drinking Problem,” “Whiskey Talkin’,” and “I’m Gonna Find a Woman” dealt with the other two dilemmas in his life: love and alcohol.
Court records suggest, however, that Howard recently had begun to act out his songs a little too closely.
On March 16, 2014, he struck another car while driving without a license in Georgia, then fled the scene. In November, he was sentenced to a year of probation for the offense. Gwinnett County, Georgia, court records also show two more hit-and-runs by Howard.
He was wanted back home in Tennessee, too. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Howard had recently been charged in Marion County with DUI, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of a firearm while intoxicated and driving on a revoked license.
The country singer quickly bonded out but apparently had no intention of appearing before a judge. His court appearance came and went with no sign of Howard.
“One morning I went over there to take him to court and he wasn’t ready,” neighbor Terry Dotson told local TV station WSMV. “He said, ‘Well, I’ll call them in a couple hours.’ And that’s when I got mad at him. I said, ‘Look, we’re supposed to be there at 9 o’clock.”
“He said he wasn’t going back to jail. That’s what he told me,” Dotson said.
Howard was true to his word.
On Tuesday evening, he was at home in his low-slung log cabin when bounty hunter Jackie Shell arrived with a warrant for Howard’s arrest.
“Shell … shot 65-year-old Randy Howard inside Howard’s residence in the 3100 block of Griffin Road,” according to a statement from the TBI. “Shell shot Howard after Howard fired a weapon at the bounty hunter, who also sustained injuries during the incident.”
Howard died inside the “Johnny Walker Home” he had sung about. Shell survived. Video footage of the aftermath showed a broken stained glass window on Howard’s weathered front porch.
The shooting has raised questions about the rights of bail bondsmen, who are not licensed in Tennessee. Shell, whom local media identified as a former policeman, had a warrant to arrest Howard. But under Tennessee law, the country singer also had a right to defend himself if threatened in his home.
“I don’t believe they had the right to come in his house, no,” Dotson said.
TBI is investigating the shooting.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise ending for the man who sang about shooting ex-girlfriends in the behind with a BB gun and wrote an ode to a female felon called “Killer On The Run.”
But still, fans took to the Internet to share their memories of the almost-famous performer. Some saw him as a charismatic outlaw; others as a tortured soul.
“Think he went the way he wanted: fighting to the end,” one wrote. “Last words: I ain’t going back to jail.”
“RIP,” wrote another. “Find the peace in the next world you could not find in this one.”