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.”