The short story of Randy Howard, fiddler extraordinaire

One of the simple yet great pleasures I take in life is taking a walk around sundown with my MP3 player on shuffle. At 160GB capacity, I have so much music on it that I couldn’t possibly find the time to hear it all. The shuffle function has me introduced to new material on a regular basis, and I’m frequently stopping when I hear a good track to jot down who sang it so I remember for later. It’s how I source a lot of the material for the show.

A few weeks ago I was ambling along as the shadows were growing longer and a song came on from a man named Randy Howard. It was a beautiful gospel tune featuring haunting vocals and sparse but effective musicianship. Never having heard of the guy, when I got home I looked him up and was struck by the poignancy of his story, especially with reference to the song.

The song was entitled “Fit For A King” and tells the story of a homeless man: sick, down on his luck and near the end, but who is triumphant nonetheless, in his faith.

Son it ain’t what you’re driving/Or the clothes that you wear/Material possessions won’t matter up there/Someday in heaven, when the angels all sing/And these rags that I’m wearing will be fit for a king.

The vocals are haunting in delivery and really pack a punch when you know the backstory. Randy was raised in Georgia and in his life managed to win pretty much every fiddle competition there is (including some multiple times). His mastery on many different types of stringed instruments has been well documented among the session musician fraternity, and by the time he was done he had played with George Jones, Garth Brooks, Steve Wariner, Faith Hill, Rhonda Vincent and Ricky Skaggs.

at the station inn

Randy Howard’s memorial headstone

Somehow, a man with this much musical talent managed to stay under the radar of all but the most ardent bluegrass fans and industry insiders. We’ve all heard a song that made us think, “Now why in the heck didn’t that guy make it big?!”, and I had one of those moments with Randy. I suppose by some standards he did make it big, but a man with this much talent surely deserves more recognition! But, to emphasise the point, by the time I first heard of him in 2013, he had long since lost his 4 year battle with cancer and died at only 38 in 1999.

Sugar Hill Records posthumously released his aptly titled final album, “I Rest My Case” in 2001. It demonstrates his proficiency in many different types of acoustic music, and features cameos from many industry heavyweights.

“Fit For A King” was recorded in the middle of Randy’s illness, and it seems to me that he knew what was coming. I can’t help but think Randy put himself in the shoes of the man in the song and probably took some comfort of his own from it. Thankfully with the power of the internet and the health of the bluegrass music industry at present, we can be assured that Randy’s legacy will carry on. It’s a silver lining to the all-too-brief story of one of bluegrass’ best.

Below is a Shelby Lynne video featuring Randy, showcasing his ability where big band/swing meets country music.

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