"I WAS SUPER SHY as a kid," says Barna Howard. "I couldn't imagine ever getting on a talent show at school or something. But something happened. That worry left when I moved away and saw what other people were doing."
Howard is setting the scene for the semi-nomadic path he took away from his small hometown of Eureka, Missouri, some 35 minutes west of St. Louis. From there, he went to Chicago to study animation—he still works as an animator for Bent Image Lab—and then to Boston, where his dormant songwriting ability was finally given room to bloom. There, he met Vikesh Kapoor and Vincent Bancheri, and the trio moved out to Portland in 2010 to start Bancheri's label, Mama Bird Recording Co., and release Howard and Kapoor's music. In May, Mama Bird dropped Howard's sophomore LP, Quite a Feelin', and it's a stripped-down outlaw-country onslaught, full of John Prine-style guitar plucking, Townes Van Zandt-like cautious pessimism, and Kris Kristofferson's storytelling prowess.
"People have said that it sounds like something that was written in the '70s. I don't mind that comparison," says Howard. "I try to keep it somewhat original, but at the same time, if I do some basic chords and write a good song, I'm happy with it if I can get a good song out there."
Howard's confessional lyrics evoke the kind of poetic framework his predecessors explored. "Hands Like Gloves" is a somber tale documenting a scene of domestic violence. "Rooster Still Crows" is an image-rich tune that captures a snapshot of tragedy as it's muddied up by the ruthless forward motion of life everywhere else. Quite a Feelin' is full of vivid, striking stories set to rambling outlaw-country arrangements that showcase Howard's dedication to perfecting his songwriting. Somewhere along the line, the shy kid from Missouri picked up a lot of road-weary insights about the big world around him.
"This is now my outlet, and I'll take it," says Howard. "I'll take writing songs to catch up on my antisocial ways back in the day. These songs are for me to tell people what I thought about those days.
"I always think of my second album as a continuation of my first," Howard continues. "It's a part two of my journal. I never kept a diary or journal growing up, so writing a song replaces that and makes me feel good about getting something down. These songs are like my diary."
Howard's debut self-titled LP was a glimpse into the travels that eventually landed him in the Northwest, and Quite a Feelin' offers a keen eye toward the rearview to see where he's been—most importantly the small-town Missouri life he's now so far removed from, at least geographically.
"I'm very close to my family," says Howard. "I had to get out of [Eureka] if I wanted to do music. But I feel like I'm missing out. I'm watching my parents grow old. It's in the back of my mind all the time, and that's another reason the songs come. It's homage to them and what that town was for me. It makes me feel good to say hi to them through my music since I'm not there."