Jean Shepard–An appreciation

Country Music Hall of Fame inductee and Grand Ole Opry star Jean Shepard, who died Sept. 25 at 82, stood well apart from other female country artists.

“Jean Shepard was a great singer and entertainer whose career spanned from the era of honky-tonk music to the present,” says acclaimed country singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell. “She was a pioneering female artist, one of the first to be honored with membership in the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1950s, and as the widow of Hawkshaw Hawkins, she was a survivor of one of the most tragic losses in country music history.”

Shepard was married to country star Hawkins, who died in the 1963 plane crash that also claimed the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.

“You can hear the strength of her character in her voice, which was bold and hard-edged like the honky-tonks she started performing in as a teenager, but could also be surprisingly tender and sweet,” notes Cantrell. “It was that range as a singer that drove her recording career, kept her a favorite on the Opry stage for almost 60 years, and ensured her inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame just a few years ago.”

Shepard’s career took off in 1953, when she was 18 and sang the refrain of Ferlin Husky’s heartbroken recitation “A Dear John Letter.”

Her solo 1950s hits included “A Satisfied Mind,” “Beautiful Lies” and “I Want to Go Where No One Knows Me,” and her 1954 LP Songs of a Love Affair was country music’s first female “concept” album. Throughout her career she remained a country music purist, eschewing the more refined “countrypolitan” pop sound of the ‘70s.

Her last Top 10 hit came in 1973 with “Slippin’ Away,” which reached No. 4. It was one of many Bill Anderson songs recorded by Shepard, and fellow Country Music Hall of Fame/Grand Ole Opry member Anderson, posting on his website, surmised that he had known her longer than he had any other country artist.

He recalled their initial “infamous” radio interview backstage in Athens, Ga., in 1956, as well as the night in 2015 when he introduced her on the occasion of her 60th anniversary as an Opry member; within that span “there wasn’t a time when Jean wasn’t a part of my life,” he wrote—“a big part.”

Indeed, when Anderson started a syndicated TV show in 1965, Shepard was his first featured female vocalist.

“When she was looking for a song with which to begin a new recording career at United Artists Records, she chose one of mine called ‘Slippin’ Away,’” he said. “Later, when she was looking for an idea from which to build a ‘concept’ album around, she chose to honor me with a 12-song collection of nothing but songs I had written–songs that have never been sung any better than Jean Shepard sang them.”

Anderson recalled touring with Shepard “in the days when we worked the old package shows inside the new sports arenas that were springing up around the country back in the ‘60s. Before the shows, we all dressed in the hockey players’ or the basketball players’ locker rooms with absolutely no privacy [and] you knew it was getting close to show time when Jean Shepard’s voice would echo across the room, ‘Turn your heads, boys, I’m a-changin’ clothes. And if you don’t turn your heads, I’m changin’ ’em anyway!’”

Shepard, he concluded, “was talented, funny, opinionated, passionate, and genuine to the core. You might not always agree with her, but you always knew where she stood. She loved traditional country music, and didn’t have a lot of patience with those who didn’t. She was outspoken to a fault at times, and that might have delayed her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame for a while. But her sheer talent was undeniable: She, along with Kitty Wells, pioneered country music for women–and there finally came a time in 2011 when the voters couldn’t deny her contributions any longer.”

YouTube Discoveries: Tributes to Kitty Wells and Hank Williams

Laura Cantrell performed her beautiful tribute to the late “Queen of Country Music” Kitty Wells, the titletrack of her 2011 album Kitty Wells Dresses, Tuesday night at City Winery, with husband Jeremy Tepper, program director of SiriusXM satellite radio’s Outlaw Country and Willie’s Roadhouse channels, in attendance.

I don’t know why it took me so long—going on four years—to see the connection between it and a song Tepper co-wrote and recorded in 1990 with his band the World Famous Blue Jays. “Do It For Hank” was produced by Eric Ambel and released on Tepper’s Diesel Only label, which focused on trucker country songs but also put out Kitty Wells Dresses.

Cantrell’s song speaks for itself. It was the only original in a set of Wells songs expertly chosen by Cantrell, who’s as knowledgeable about vintage country music as her husband.

What’s so cool about “Do It for Hank,” though, is that it’s part of a grand tradition of Hank Williams tribute songs. I’ll touch on four.

Moe Bandy’s 1975 country hit “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life,” is pretty straightforward in expressing the singer’s identification with Williams songs (“You wrote ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ about a gal just like my first ex-wife’”).

Waylon Jennings’ hit “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” also from 1975, wearily questions whether the prescribed route to stardom being laid out for him—“ Ten years down the road, making one night stands/Speeding my young life away”—was really the way Hank done it.

David Allan Coe took a mystical approach on his spooky 1983 hit “The Ride,” in which a hitchhiker gets picked up and briefly mentored by the ghost of Hank.

Of course, no one could do a Hank Williams tribute song better than Hank Williams, Jr., whose “The Conversation” finds Waylon intensely querying Bocephus about his dad. Even the video is genius.

Coe actually took the Hank Williams tribute to the next level with his “Hank Williams Junior–Junior” tribute to Junior, who became so big both physically and talentwise that Coe didn’t feel comfortable calling him Junior anymore.

And Tepper? “Do It for Hank” is a rowdy country rockin’ trucker’s pick-up line that Junior, if not Senior, was certainly proud of—if he ever heard it—and an original take on a well-worn country music theme and subgenre.

The truth behind my Top 10

I first heard Rosanne Cash’s magnificent The River & The Thread over a year ago, and if I remember correctly, immediately tweeted that even though 2014 was still a ways away, I already had my No. 1 Album of the Year. That it didn’t turn out that way says less about The River & The Thread than it does about my admittedly bogus methodology in choosing Top 10 Albums of the Year.

But really, what does it mean, Album of the Year? The best album of the year? Who’s to say? By what criteria? Or put it this way: Does the Grammy Award for Album of the Year mean that the award winner actually was the best album of the year?

I’ll let you answer that. As for me, and probably others who put these inane lists together, they’re a combination of favorite albums and those by artists that need a break to get heard in the morass of commercially-released and corporate-supported music. In my case, in general, both are the same, with Cash’s being one of the few that has major distribution.

Back when I was at Billboard, we actually included singles, videos, concerts and events in our Top 10 lists, and often went with ties to squeeze in more than 10. Purists would surely call it a cop-out, but I think my late pal, Billboard editor-in-chief Tim White, once crammed in 12 or 13 titles one year.

This year I was tempted to go the tie route more than once, especially because of Rosanne, and particularly because of Carlene Carter.

How ironic that Carlene, who grew up with Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash after he married her mother June Carter, would come out with her own career album just a few months after Rosanne—with Carter Girl kind of being her The List. This presented a huge problem for me in that I wrote the Carter Girl liner notes for my old and dear friend Carlene—but my old and dear friend Rosanne had thanked me a few years ago on a CD compilation. I’m sure they’d both hate me if I copped out and tied them at No. 1, and I was tempted to go the alphabetical route and put Carlene ahead of Rosanne, except that Rosanne’s album was entirely original, while Carlene’s had several beautifully done covers.

Luckily, NRBQ’s Brass Tacks came out, offering me my own plausible out of the sticky situation. Here’s where the wanting to give deserving artists a break part comes in: NRBQ remains perhaps the greatest under-appreciated band in rock ‘n’ roll history. Founded in the late 1960s, it’s still led by Terry Adams, who’s overcome throat cancer and band personnel changes and needs and deserves the recognition that Rosanne and Carlene already have.

But then came Jimmy Liban. A dear friend from Milwaukee, Jimmy is one of the all-time great blues harmonica players/singers/songwriters, but you probably only know that if you’re a blues fan. He was one of the artists I wrote about the most when I started writing in Madison, Wis. in the late ’70s; that he never achieved household name status remains one of my biggest career regrets. When I listened to I Say What I Mean, his first album in decades, produced and recorded by his former guitarist Joel Paterson, it was clear that this had to be my No. 1.

But it could easily have been Cajun country star Jo-El Sonnier’s The Legacy, or Doug Kershaw & Steve Riley’s Face to Face, both magnificent returns to traditional Cajun music form by two of the most important artists in the genre–and my career: I actually became a writer in order to meet Doug at a rock festival in Oshkosh, Wis., having just met Jo-El on my first trip to Nashville. Doug’s then latest album featured Jo-El’s “Cajun Born.” I was a huge fan of both.

That leaves Maura Moynihan’s Bombay Superstar—a Bollywood inspired pop/dance/techno delight; Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits, which was even better than its auspicious 2010 self-titled debut; and Thompson’s Family, Teddy Thompson’s perfectly realized compilation of new songs and performances by his esteemed family members. Any and all of these Top Nine albums could just as credibly been No. 1 in any other year.

My No. 10, AC/DC’s Rock or Bust, would seem to be the only filler title here, though it’s a most excellent album. But I probably would have replaced it with one of several albums I discovered after making this list originally for the Village Voice, then making another of strictly country/Americana/folk/bluegrass titles for Nashville Scene.

I really hadn’t received or listened to a lot of country-related albums this year, due to having fallen off so many lists in the time since I was with Billboard. Thankfully, the Scene sends along several lists of relevant titles that are eligible for consideration, and I was able to stream Laura Cantrell’s No Way From Here, The Isaacs’ The Living Years, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line, Jim Lauderdale’s Patchwork River and Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ Saturday Night/Sunday Morning—all superb.

At least Joel Paterson was pleased by Rock or Bust.

“Thanks so much, Jim,” he messaged. “And an honor to be on a list with AC/DC!”