Jean Shepard (1933 – 2016)

Jean Shepard (1933 - 2016)

Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard passed away Sunday at the age of 82.

The Grand Lady of the Grand Ole Opry was born Ollie Imogene (“Jean”) Shepard on Nov. 21, 1933 in Paul’s Valley, Okla. The family, which included 10 children, later moved to Visalia, Calif., near Bakersfield, after World War II. As a young girl, Shepard listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio every week and saved her pennies to buy a Jimmie Rodgers record every year.

“Jean was an absolute trailblazer for women in Country Music,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA Chief Executive Officer. “Her strong will, independence, and innovation paved the way for countless artists. That firey spirit is felt in the strong words and voices of female artists today, and will continue to impact generations to come.”

Shepard sang lead vocals and played bass guitar in the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female band that she helped create as a teenager in 1948. Fortune smiled, and the group performed one night at the same venue as Country Music singer Hank Thompson. Impressed with Shepard and her talent, Thompson helped her get a record deal at Capitol Records in 1952 and connected her with his producer, Ken Nelson. The timing was perfect. That same year, Decca Records had achieved huge success with Kitty Wells and her song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (which sold more than 800,000 copies in its initial release), and Capitol wanted to introduce a new female Country singer of their own.

Shepard’s first single, “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz,” did not chart, but Capitol Records believed in her talent and remained supportive. In 1953, the label teamed her with another young and rising talent, Ferlin Husky, for “A Dear John Letter,” a half-spoken/half-sung duet about a soldier in the Korean War. The song was a huge hit, topping the Country charts, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard pop singles charts, and becoming the first post-World War II single by a female Country artist to sell more than one million copies. Shepard and Husky quickly followed up with “Forgive Me John,” which became a Top 10 Country and Top 25 pop hit. Because Jean was under 21 and still considered a minor, her parents had to sign her rights to Husky so that she could tour. She would go on to have hits with songs such as “Twice the Lovin’ in Half the Time,” “Don’t Fall in Love With a Married Man,” “The Root of All Evil (Is a Man),” and “The Other Woman,” all songs that presented a strong and, rare for that era, empowered female point of view, which later influenced artists including Loretta Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley.

In 1955, Shepard reached No. 4 on the Billboard Country Singles Chart with “A Satisfied Mind.” That same year she also had hits with “Take Possession” (No. 13), “Beautiful Lies” (No. 4), and “I Thought of You” (No. 10). Her success earned her an invitation to join the cast of ABC Television’s “Ozark Jubilee.” She stayed with the show, which filmed in Springfield, Mo., until 1958 and worked alongside a cast of talented artists which included The Browns, Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, and Porter Wagoner, among others. After leaving “Ozark Jubilee,” she moved to Nashville to be closer to the Grand Ole Opry, which she had also joined in 1955.

In 1956, she released her first album, Songs of a Love Affair. Several music historians refer to this as the first concept album in Country Music history, because all 12 songs on the album, which Shepard had a hand in writing, told the story of a marriage ripped apart by an affair. Continuing to follow her own path, she was the rare female Country artist that toured on her own instead of being either part of a couple or the “girl singer” in a band, breaking down doors for hundreds of female Country artists who would follow. She continued to record, and was named the Top Female Singer of 1959 by Cashbox. But as a hardcore honky-tonk singer who now found herself in an age when smooth Country pop was in vogue, Shepard had entered a nine-year period where her songs were not as successful as they once were. In fact, she achieved only two Top 40 hits during this time: “I Want to Go Where No One Knows Me” (No. 18 in 1958) and “Have Heart, Will Love” (No. 30 in 1959).

Shepard married fellow Opry member Hawkshaw Hawkins (Harold Franklin Hawkins) in 1960, and juggled her career with being a housewife and mother to their first son, Don. Tragically, Hawkins was killed in 1963 along with Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas in a plane crash. His widow was pregnant with their second son, Harold Franklin II, at the time.

In 1964, Shepard returned to the Top 10 with her hit “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar).” Between 1965 and 1970, she had a string of hit songs, including 15 that reached the Top 40. Among her hits were songs such as “Someone’s Gotta Cry,” “A Tear Dropped By,” “I’ll Take the Dog” (a 1966 duet with Ray Pillow), “Many Happy Hangovers to You” (1966), “If Teardrops Were Silver” (1966), “Heart We Did All We Could” (1967), “Your Forevers Don’t Last Very Long” (1967), “A Real Good Woman” (1968), “Seven Lonely Days” (1969), “Then He Touched Me” (1970), and “Another Lonely Night” (1970).

Her last hit for Capitol Records was “With His Hand in Mine” in 1971, and she soon signed with United Artists Records. This turned out to be a good move, as her first single, “Slippin’ Away,” hit No. 4 on the Country charts in 1973 and became her biggest solo hit since the 1950s. She continued to have success with songs including “Poor Sweet Baby,” “At the Time,” “I’ll Do Anything It Takes (To Stay with You),” “Tips of My Fingers,” and more, while also steadily touring. She also served for a term in the mid-‘70s as the president of the Association of Country Entertainers, an organization dedicated to supporting classic Country Music in its purest form. In the late 1970s, she recorded for GRT Records, before moving to Laserlight Records in the early 1980s.

Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011 in the “Veterans Era Artist” category. She was a pillar of the Grand Ole Opry, and was honored in 2015 for her 60th anniversary with the legendary show, making her the only female member to reach that milestone. At the time of her death, Shepard was the longest-running Opry member.

Shepard is survived by husband Benny Birchfield (whom she married in 1968), her three sons, and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.