When his industry was forced to shut down, Porter Howell ramped up. After 30 years in the business, it took a pandemic to compel the founding member of country rock powerhouse Little Texas to take the time to record and release his first side project as a singer/songwriter.
“I probably wrote 40 songs by myself in 2020 alone”—thanks to the forced downtime after 18 years of nonstop touring, Howell explains— “and my longtime partner, Michelle, eventually insisted I do something with them.”
So, Howell began making demos of a few of those self-penned songs, and slowly the substance for an album emerged. As he explains, “For the first time since I started writing, I was writing songs by myself, though initially I was still saving them for other people,” either with a co-writer in mind or for a particular artist to record. “But I came to realize there was a personal angle to this particular group of songs,” he adds, “because they were greatly influenced by my parents and the type of music they loved.”
It takes just one listen to the title track and debut single, the nostalgic “This Town Was,” to immediately feel their presence in his music. And anyone who knows Nashville’s history will be drawn to the authenticity of the heartfelt lyrics as Howell soulfully sings about how the town he grew up in professionally has changed so much.
“This song came from driving around Nashville and realizing it just doesn’t look—or feel—the same…it’s a different vibe” now that the city has become a major tourist attraction, Howell notes. “It’s like that sleepy fishing village that becomes everybody’s favorite vacation spot” and loses its character in the process.
“This Town was/Two one-way streets where dreams could find a way to fly…If you look real close, you can almost see a vague outline…It’s where lonely voices dared to bare their hearts and souls/And if you listen close enough, you’ll hear the ghosts…
To the newbies, Howell advises, “I’m sure there’s a fire that still burns/In every hopeful waiting their turn/I can only hope they care to learn,” while cautioning the developers who “build and build until it’s hard to find/Where this town was”
The deep commitment to his craft is no surprise, given Howell has spent the last three decades honing his skills by writing, recording, playing, and performing award-winning, Grammy-nominated songs as a member of one of the few true bands to find multi-platinum success in country music. Little Texas carved its niche by writing and performing its own music, both on the stage and in the studio.
Initially the band’s lead guitar player and songwriter—in 1994, he was honored with the coveted Country Music Association’s Triple Play Award for writing three No. 1 singles in a 12-month period (“What Might Have Been,” “God Blessed Texas” and “My Love”)—in the last 15 years Howell has also taken on lead vocalist duties. After a seven-year hiatus, the group reunited in 2004 when Howell, Duane Propes, Del Gray and Dwayne O’Brien decided to reignite the band, which has been going strong ever since, playing up to 80 shows a year and releasing new music in 2007 and again in 2015.
Howell comes by his talent honestly. Born in Longview, Texas, in the mid-60s, Howell remembers his mother playing piano and listening to rock music by Simon & Garfunkel, the Steve Miller Band, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. His father, meanwhile, loved classic country. A guitarist himself, his dad’s favorite artists were Roger Miller, Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. All these influences eventually helped shape Howell’s career as both a musician and songwriter.
Having developed a love for guitar after learning to play on his father’s acoustic, Howell began taking electric guitar lessons at age 13. But it was while listening to Emmylou Harris’ 1978 album Quarter Moon in a 10 Cent Town with his father that something clicked. “At the time I was mostly into rock music—Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Van Halen,” Howell says. “Then I heard Albert Lee play for the first time on ‘Two More Bottles of Wine’ and I thought, ‘Holy crap. This is something different!’ I dug in and learned all the solos off that record.”
His passion for music grew; Howell would go on to play in several bands in high school, and by the time he was 16, he was playing professionally throughout Texas. A natural next step was attending Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
With a plan to become a studio guitar player, Howell quickly picked up gigs around town shortly after moving to Music City in 1983. After leaving college, Howell found himself touring the world with the U.S. Department of Defense before later playing at Opryland, where he met two musicians—acoustic guitarist O’Brien and vocalist Tim Rushlow—who would play a pivotal role in his career. They formed a cover band called the Varsities with bass guitarist Propes (a fellow Longview Texan whom Howell had played in bands with before) and began performing at hotels and on cruise ships.
But it was another Belmont student, Christy DiNapoli, who changed the Varsities’ career trajectory by securing the band an audition with Doug Grau, an A&R rep at Warner Bros. Records. By 1988, the Varsities had become Little Texas, and Grau offered the band a developmental deal with DiNapoli as their manager.
The band’s 1991 debut single, “Some Guys Have All the Love,” peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. It was Howell’s first cut as a co-writer, and the track’s success helped Little Texas cement a record deal with Warner Bros. Howell went on to co-write eight of the 10 tracks featured on the band’s 1992 debut album, First Time for Everything as well as play every signature guitar lick, developing what became the bands slide guitar sound.
Success as a songwriter continued for Howell, who helped pen follow-up singles “First Time for Everything,” “You and Forever and Me,” “What Were You Thinking” and “I’d Rather Miss You.” Eventually, with four acclaimed albums under their collective belts and a reputation as the hardest-working band in country music due to an extensive touring schedule, the members of Little Texas took a well-deserved break in 1997.
During the years off, Howell continued working prolifically as a songwriter, having his songs recorded by Montgomery Gentry, Trace Adkins, Jeff Foxworthy and, in a career-defining moment as a writer, landing a cut on Hall & Oates’ 1997 studio album, Marigold Sky. A co-write with Oates and bandmate O’Brien, “Promise Ain’t Enough” saw success internationally and as a single, peaking at No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Howell also played guitar for several major artists and started a project with longtime friend and co-writer Paul Jefferson. They formed the alt-country band Hilljack–along with Jon Putnam and John Riffe–and recorded two albums, one of which was produced by the legendary Biff Watson.
Today, Howell splits his time between the road and the writing room. He is a staple among Nashville’s elite songwriters, having written with Bob DiPiero, Tom Shapiro, Victoria Shaw, Lee Thomas Miller, Tim Nichols, Sonny LeMaire, Allen Shamblin, Stewart Harris, Liz Hengber and James Otto, among others. He also enjoys working with new artists and writers, especially his daughter, budding songstress Lauren Howell.