Jean Shepard, the singer who, along with Kitty Wells, pioneered women in country music, died on Sunday morning after a long illness at the age of 82.
Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21, 1933 in Pauls Valley, OK, her family soon moved to Bakersfield, CA where she was raised.
As a teen, she played bass in a band called the Melody Ranch Girls and, a few years later, singer Hank Thompson discovered Shephard, getting her signed to Capitol Records in 1952. While her first single was not a hit, she hit it out of the park with her second, A Dear John Letter, with Ferlin Husky. The song not only topped the Country Singles, but it also crossed over and went to number 4 on the Pop charts. Their follow-up, Forgive Me, John, went to 4 on Country and 24 on Pop.
It wouldn’t be until 1955 that Jean would finally start to make a name for herself as a solo artist, hitting with A Satisfied Mind and Beautiful Lies, both of which peaked on the Country charts at number 4. It was also in 1955 that Jean became a regular on ABC’s Ozark Jubilee and released her first album, Songs of a Love Affair.
Even with four hits behind her, Shepard found it hard to make the charts for a number of years as her Honky Tonk sound has lost favor with country audiences. In 1960, she married fellow country singer Hankshaw Hawkins but he died three years later in the plane crash that also killed Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.
Nine years after her last major hit, Shepard returned to the country charts with Second Fiddle (to An Old Guitar) (1964 / #5) which started a string of country hits that lasted into the late-70’s including If Teardrops Were Silver (1966 / #10), The He Touched Me (1969 / #8) and Slippin’ Away (1973 / #4). She also hit the top ten in 1966 with I’ll Take the Dog, a duet with Ray Pillow.
In 1974, Shepard became the president of the newly formed Association of Country Entertainers, formed in response to Olivia Newton-John winning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974. The organization’s main purpose was to keep country “pure”.
Earlier this decade, Shepard once again spoke out for “pure” country, calling out Blake Shelton when he said that traditional country music was for “old farts and jackasses.” Shepard, always feisty, said “We’ve got a young man in country music who has made some pretty dumb statements lately. What did he say? That traditional country music is for old farts and jack-you-know-whats? Well, I guess that makes me an old fart. I love country music. I won’t tell you what his name is…but his initials is BS…and he’s full of it!”
Jean joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and celebrated 60 years of membership in 2015, the longest living member of the Opry at the time. On the night of the celebration, she announced her retirement from the stage.
Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
Comments from some of her contemporaries:
Friends, we’ve lost another icon in country music today, Jean Shepard. The Tennessean called her ‘one of traditional country music’s greatest, feistiest advocates’. The hearts of country music fans worldwide are indeed heavy with the news of her passing. There’s just never going to be another one like her.
Very sad news -Country Music Hall of Famer Jean Shepard dead at 82.
Rest in peace sweet lady. ~ T
God bless my Opry friend and mentor Jean Shepard who passed away this morning. She made it easier for us girls to make our way in this business. She was funny, bright, feisty and the first woman to MC the Opry show. I saw her one month ago and we had the best talk we’d ever had. A True country music singer, she will be missed. God bless Benny and all their children and grandchildren. Love you Jean.
My heart is so heavy this evening at the news of Jean Shepard’s passing. I was hoping I would get home in time to tell her I love her, but I didn’t make it. However, she could tell that when I first met her when I was about 13…..and she remembered that when I met her again when I got to Nashville years later. And we told each other often… She was one of my heroes and she will be missed by all of us…… You didn’t have to ask who was singing, and you didn’t have to ask what she thought! RIP Shepard