(Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean)
Juli Thanki, email@example.com 12:02 p.m. CDT September 25, 2016
- Country Music Hall of Famer Jean Shepard dead at 82
Jean Shepard on the 1963 plane crash that killed her husband and Patsy Cline
Legendary country artist Jean Shepard tells it how it is
Trailblazer Jean Shepard, a Country Music Hall of Fame member, a member of the Grand Ole Opry for more than 60 years and one of traditional country music’s greatest, feistiest advocates, died Sunday at the age of 82.
“She’s one of those people who opened doors,” Opry announcer and WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs said in late 2015. “There were some she had to push open and some others she had to kick her way through.”
Shepard was a pioneer for women in country music. Her 1956 LP, “Songs of a Love Affair,” featuring songs about a marriage broken up by adultery, was one of the genre's first concept albums, and other gutsy, forthright recordings such as “Act Like a Married Man” helped to pave the way for artists like Loretta Lynn.
Ollie Imogene Shepard was born November 21, 1933 in Pauls Valley, Okla. The daughter of sharecroppers, Shepard — and her nine siblings — grew up singing in the church, and was drawn to the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. She grew up in a home without electricity or running water. And every year, her parents saved their pennies to afford a new battery for their AM radio. Shortly before her eleventh birthday, the Shepard family moved to Visalia, California, about 100 miles north of Bakersfield.
Hawkshaw Hawkins and his wife, Jean Shepard, both "Grand Ole Opry" singers, proudly show off their baby, Don Robin, in their living room Dec. 13, 1961. Their first baby weighed in at 8 pounds, 7 ounces at Saint Thomas Hospital and was named after the couple's "Opry" friends Don Gibson and Marty Robbins. Jimmy Ellis / The Tennessean
While in high school, Shepard and four other young women formed a band called The Melody Ranch Girls. Her parents had put up their furniture as collateral in order to obtain a bass for their daughter to play. In addition to those Melody Ranch Girl gigs, she also sang Saturday mornings on the radio station KNGS.
In 1952, country star Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys played a concert near Shepard’s town. She got up onstage to sing a song with them and impressed Thompson. Several months later, after Thompson nudged producer and label executive Ken Nelson, Shepard was signed to the label he was on, Capitol Records. “(Nelson) didn’t want to sign me. He wasn’t really sold on female singers,” she remembered in 2015. “But Hank Thompson was a very big artist at Capitol Records and he could demand things from (the label), which he did.”
With the exception of Kitty Wells and Patsy Montana, there were very few solo female artists in country music at that time. Labels didn’t see much viability or sales potential in women who weren’t part of an act. At first, it looked as though Shepard might have proven the record executives right when her debut single, 1952’s “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz,” failed to chart. Her next release, “A Dear John Letter,” a duet she recorded with Ferlin Husky, would be far more successful, selling more than one million records. It spent six weeks atop the country charts and hit No. 4 on the pop charts. It was the only No. 1 song of her career.
When Shepard began working with Husky, she was younger than 21. Her parents had to make him her legal guardian so that the two singers could tour together across state lines. She learned invaluable lessons about the music industry on those tours. Because she was so young and green, one day, when Husky mentioned buying a "Billboard" (the magazine that included music charts), she thought he was talking about a billboard alongside the highway.
In November of 1955, Shepard got the best birthday present a young country singer could ask for when, at 22, she was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. She was one of three women who were Opry members at that time: the other two were Wells and Minnie Pearl. During the 1950s, she also became a cast member of the program “Ozark Jubilee,” where she met Hawkshaw Hawkins, the man who would become her husband. The two singers toured together and, in November 1960, they married on the stage of a Wichita, Kansas auditorium. In 1961, Shepard gave birth to son Don Robin.
Hawkins died in the March 5, 1963 plane crash that also claimed the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas, leaving Shepard a widow, eight months pregnant, and also raising a toddler. Just weeks after the death of her husband, she gave birth to Harold Franklin Hawkins II. Her fellow Opry members rallied around her, and WSM president Jack DeWitt told her that her job would be waiting when she was ready to return.
Country Music Hall of Famer Jean Shepard, a grand lady of the Grand Ole Opry, was married to Hawkshaw Hawkins when Hawkins, Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas and Patsy Cline rode in a plane piloted by Randy Hughes that crashed in a wooded area near Camden, TN File / The Tennessean
One Saturday, several months after the crash, she came to the Ryman Auditorium and stood on the side of the stage, watching the other singers. A few Saturdays later, she mustered the courage to step into the spotlight begin performing again. Although she was grieving, she resumed her music career and worked tirelessly to support her two small boys.
After a brief marriage to her third husband, a Nashville police officer, Shepard married musician Benny Birchfield in 1968. Their son Corey was born a year later.
In the early 1970s, Shepard moved from Capitol Records to United Artists, where s he remained until 1977. She released her last single, a version of the Harlan Howard composition “Too Many Rivers,” in 1981.
Throughout her career, Shepard was an outspoken opponent of pop-country music. “Today’s country is not country, and I’m very adamant about that,” she told The Tennessean in 2015. “I’ll tell anybody who’ll listen, and some of those who don’t want to listen, I’ll tell them anyway. ... Country music today isn't genuine.”
Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011. At the press conference announcing that year's inductees, Hall of Famer Brenda Lee said that this induction was “way too long in coming. She busted down the doors.”
On Nov. 21, 2015, the Grand Ole Opry celebrated Shepard’s 60th anniversary as a member; she was the only female member to have reached the six-decade mark. At the time of her death, Shepard was the longest-running member of the Opry, and had appeared on the show into her 80s. She was also a published author, having released her engaging memoir, “Down Through the Years,” in 2014.
Shepard leaves behind Benny Birchfield, her devoted husband of nearly 50 years, three sons, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are unknown at this time.
1953: “A Dear John Letter” (No. 1)
1955: “A Satisfied Mind” (No. 4)
1964: “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar)” (No. 5)
1966: “Many Happy Hangovers to You” (No. 13)
1966: “I’ll Take the Dog,” a duet with Ray Pillow (No. 9)
1973: "Slippin' Away" (No. 1)