Jean Shepard, whose pure honky-tonk voice and consistently vibrant recordings with their tales of romantic entanglements made her one of the most important country artists of the last half of the Twentieth century, died Sunday. She was 82 years old.
Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21st, 1933, in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, Shepard was raised in Visalia, California, in the San Joaquin Valley, an hour north of the country-music hotbed of Bakersfield. One of 10 musically inclined children in her family, she played bass and was lead singer in the Melody Ranch Girls, the all-female band she helped form in 1948. Not long after Kitty Wells broke the gender barrier in country music with the hugely successful “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Shepard was discovered at 14 by country star Hank Thompson and brought to the attention of Capitol Records and producer Ken Nelson. Her first single for the label, “A Dear John Letter,” was a tearful duet featuring Shepard’s vocal and Ferlin Husky’s recitation (in the voice of a serviceman who reads the title correspondence while overseas). It was an instant hit, spending six weeks at Number One on the country chart in the summer of 1953, just as the Korean War was ending. A follow-up, “Forgive Me John,” was also a country and pop hit and Shepard and Husky embarked on a tour together. Shepard’s first solo hit, “A Satisfied Mind,” reached Number Four in 1955.
On her 22nd birthday, in November 1955, Shepard joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. In 2005, she was the first woman to ever reach the 50-year mark with the iconic radio show. In 1956, the year she released Songs of a Love Affair, one of the first country LPs by a female artist (and a groundbreaking concept album at that), she also joined the Ozark Jubilee but her hard-country voice was something of a rarity during rock & roll’s infancy. In July 1958, she broke away from country music, temporarily, to release the rocking “He’s My Baby.” Included in a live version on the 1995 compilation, Honky Tonk Heroine, Shepard prefaces the performance by saying, “It’s something we don’t do very often, and very good even, for that matter,” and closes by adding, “Maybe it wasn’t very good but it was awful loud, wasn’t it?” Among her other early recordings were such honky-tonk gems as “Twice the Lovin’ (in Half the Time),” “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz,” “Don’t Fall in Love With a Married Man” and the cheeky “Two Whoops and a Holler.” In 1964, Shepard scored another of her most popular hits, “Second Fiddle (to an Old Guitar).” Nearly a decade later she had what became her last Top Five country hit, “Slippin’ Away.” Penned by Bill Anderson it was Shepard’s first release for United Artists, and was also a minor pop chart entry.
Shepard married fellow musician Harold “Hawkshaw” Hawkins in 1960 and they had a son, Don. On March 5th, 1963, Hawkins was killed in the same plane crash that ended the lives of Randy Hughes, musician Cowboy Copas, and Patsy Cline. One month after the accident, Shepard gave birth to her second son, Harold Franklin Hawkins II (Hawkshaw, Jr.). In 1968, she married singer and musician Benny Birchfield.
An outspoken advocate for preserving country music’s rich, traditional history, Shepard was among 22 country artists who gathered at the home of George Jones and Tammy Wynette after the October 1974 CMA awards, during which Australian pop star Olivia Newton-John was named Female Vocalist. The group of concerned performers soon announced the formation of ACE, the Association of Country Entertainers, although in spite of media attention at the time, their aim was not to protest the proliferation of pop-influenced country, but to raise concerns about the CMA board of directors and the lack of entertainers represented there. Still, Shepard had never been shy about voicing her opinion on country music’s future. In 2014, she told the Tennessean, “A lot of the country music they are playing nowadays is not country music. If they think they’re doing country music, listen to ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and ‘Cry Cry Darlin.’ Listen to that, then tell me you want to fall in love with a tractor. Look at yourself in the mirror, and then tell me if you think this will stand up against time.”
In addition to extensive touring, especially in the U.K., Shepard continued to make regular Opry appearances. She and fellow members including Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely, Wilma Lee Cooper, Jan Howard and Jeanne Pruett often performed together as the “Grand Ladies of the Grand Ole Opry.” In 2011, Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She celebrated her 60th Grand Ole Opry anniversary, and also her wedding anniversary, with her Opry family on November 21st, 2015, after which she retired from live performance.
“Jean Shepard’s legacy is huge,” singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. “It’s hard enough to be a woman in this field – and it really is – for my generation; I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her in the Fifties. The trail that she blazed is right on the heels of Kitty Wells’s, and as a honky-tonk singer with her own musical identity. That she refused to compromise her artistry, to succumb to the changing sounds and trends, has been a big inspiration.”