Morris “Howdy” Glenn is an American black country singer from the 1970s. He was never that commercially successful, but he did have his moments in the sun. Glenn possessed a smooth, rich voice that lent itself to nostalgic ballads, songs about hard times, and easy-listening songs about love lost and found. He was often compared to Charley Pride because of their shared racial heritage and similar singing styles. However, while Pride went on to superstardom, Glenn’s career never really took off. Listening to Glenn’s old recordings today, it’s hard to understand why he never became more popular. The songs hold up well. They are charming rather than cloying and deserve a wider audience.
Glenn’s first single, “I Can Almost See Houston”, was a minor regional hit on an independent record label. He effortlessly combined spoken word narratives with a silky singing voice on a tune that combined soft rock with the mainstream country music tropes of the time. His next two singles, “Where Did the Years Go” and a rendition of Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine”, did not fare as well despite their high quality
Warner Brothers’ Andy Wickham, who had also signed Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and Buck Owens, penned Glenn to a major label deal. The company dubbed him “The Singing Fireman” as that was his profession before entering the music business. Warner Bros. backed up Glenn instrumentally with some of the best session players in their stable, including James Burton (guitar), JayDee Maness (steel), and Ian Whitcomb (organ). His first release, a cover of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Dever” backed by the morality tale “Don’t Take Country to the City”, was not a success. His second single, a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Tough Me”, made the Billboard Country Music Top 100 charts and reached #62 in September 1977.
That was Glenn’s most significant commercial success. He did chart once more with the poppy David Houston 1960s hit “You Mean the World to Me”, which went to #72 in July 1978. But that was it. Warner Bros. recorded a few more sides before dropping from the label, then Glenn put on some music on his own before returning to firefighting in the 1980s. Nevertheless, his recordings were first-rate. He is one of the many talents whose artistry far exceeded his sales for complex reasons that cannot be simply explained. How much of this was due to race relations and the country music establishment, the turbulent times, changing public tastes and demographics cannot easily be determined.
Glenn successfully sings about good times on tracks like “Tucson” with a smile in his voice, but he’s even more convincing when melancholic on cuts such as “You Ought to Hear Me Cry”. He turns melodramatic tales such as “Has Been Honky Tonk Queen” and “Who Makes a Wino’s Bed” into pure horse opera! His rendition of the medley “America” that combines “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with “America the Beautiful” is only rivaled by Elvis Presley’s “American Trilogy” for patriotic chutzpah.
Omnivore Recordings’ I Can Almost See Houston: The Complete Howdy Glenn collects all of Glenn’s recordings, including his eight singles and six newly mixed, previously unissued tracks from the Warner Bros. vaults, and an outtake from his Fire Records sessions. The package was assembled by Grammy nominee Scott B. Bomar (The Bakersfield Sound) and Grammy winner Cheryl Pawelski (Hank Williams- The Garden Spot Programs, 1950), with Restoration and Mastering by Grammy winner Michael Graves. Bonnar also contributed the liner notes that outline the history of Black artists in country music and Glenn’s place in it.