It’s time for the Grand Old Opry genre to become an integral part of Englewood’s ever expanding entertainment scene.
The Suncoast Country Opry Show, that is, with eight scheduled productions for Englewood, from Sept. 21 to Jan. 25.
Its season opening performance, “Iconic Legends of Country Music Review,” Sept. 21 at the Lighthouse Grill, will be free to the public. It will feature live tributes to George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and many more country music legends.
It will be followed by “Patio Pickin’ — The History of Country Music” on Oct. 1 at The End Zone Sports Grille, “Let Freedom Ring: A Tribute to The Greatest Country in the World” Nov. 10 at the Lighthouse Grill, and a two-hour “Country Christmas” production Dec. 20 at the Englewood Event Center, featuring some of the most popular country music Christmas songs of all time.
There eventually will be some 40 shows in the future for Suncoast Country Opry Show, from Tampa to Naples, featuring a cast with some 30 years of Nashville experience. SCOS founder and president Johnny Lee Howard has over 3,000 live performances, an album and 97 original songs to his credit.
But his heart, his home, and his new venture are all in Englewood.
It all started when Johnny Lee, age 10, sat at the breakfast table in Kettering, Ohio with his parents, wanting to listen to a recording of his idols, Led Zeppelin.
Never a chance. He got instead a guitar gift from his father, Roy Lee Howard, and listening to George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” followed at times, with his mother, Judy — “a hell of a singer” — singing Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty duets with his father.
Smiling candidly today, and somewhat sheepishly, Johnny Lee confides, “I hated country music, with a passion. But I didn’t have a chance. It was all around me.”
But by age 14, under the tutelage of his father, he knew 20 George Jones songs, and his latent country music career was launched.
He still went another way on a checkered – to say the least – career, where he bought, operated and sold businesses, including landscaping, concrete, and homebuilding, before accepting a job with the Ricoh Corp. in Venice, which abruptly moved elsewhere, leaving him jobless.
He established the Venice Cleaning and Maid Service (still in business today), which he sold in 2012, moving on to a job of “vice president for development” (i.e. sales) for the MiddIeby Corp, purveyors of stainless steel food equipment. He was laid off in May.
So even while embarking on various business ventures, he began playing country music in various gigs, including four years in bars on the Broadway strip in Nashville.
Then, his big break came “out of the blue,” after a bar performance on the guitar in Nashville in 2005. A guy he didn’t know, or recognize, came up to him, called him “kiddo,” marveled at his artistry, and bought him a beer.
It was Tony Orlando, who asked Johnny Lee to open for him in the upcoming national convention of the national Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Cincinnati before 1,500 attendees. “My heart just about sank,” he said. Nevertheless, he did eight songs, including the hit from the movie, “Urban Cowboy,” “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places,” to an ovation.
He was stunned. “Just to be under those lights, that one performance, it was amazing. I was hooked.”
Looking back, emotionally, Johnny Lee credits it all to his father, Roy, who died at age 56 after years of smoking multi-packs of cigarettes.
“I was prepared for that show, he told the Sun, with the trace of a tear, “because of my dad. If my dad had not made me… If it were not for my father (tutoring me)all those years, I couldn’t have worked in Nashville.”
There was ultimate support from his mom, Judy, as well, he said, who will be coming from his boyhood home in Kettering to cheer him on in his opening show on Saturday.
Now I’ve got this crazy company I’ve started, and you know what, it’s going to succeed.
“The older I get in life,” he said, “I realize that, unquestionably, everything happens for a reason. I think we all end up doing what we were supposed to do.
“I’m 50, man, and I firmly believe that we’re blessed with something. All of us are. Sometimes it takes you a while to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, to try to admit your weaknesses and try to capitalize on your strengths.
“Business is something I’ve already done well, and music I’ve also done well at. Now, I’m putting them both together.”
His quest starts at the Lighthouse Grill.