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.”

The iconic misuse of the word “icon”

Didn’t agree much with the late conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, but he was an excellent writer, and I read his weekly “On Language” column in the Times Magazine regularly. I’m sure he’d agree with me that like the words meme and trope, neither of which I know how to use correctly, icon, which hardly anyone else knows how to use correctly, is likewise a good writer’s overworked, and in its case, wrongly used term.

What rankles me so much about “icon”—and by extension, “iconic”—is how it came suddenly out of nowhere and is now inescapable, such that not a day goes by when I don’t get a PR pitch regarding someone or other who’s an icon or iconic, which, presumably, is why I should give a shit. But i don’t, because they’re invariably neither.

It’s so out of hand that last week I got a release titled “Legacy Lounge Brings Suiteness to Iconic Levels at the London West Hollywood.” Okay, I guess “suiteness” is a clever made-up word, or else a play on “sweetness.” Whatever. But whatever the fuck it is, bringing it to “iconic levels” makes no sense at all, that is, “level” singular or plural can’t be made iconic, that is, unless you stretch the meaning of iconic far beyond its traditional usage.

Okay, so what constitutes the use of “iconic”? Simply put, it has to refer to an unmistakable icon. The word usually means “a usually pictorial representation,” that is, image, or “an object of uncritical devotion,” that is, idol (merriam-webster.com).

But the word “idol” has been so watered down (thanks, to finger one culprit, to American Idol), that it’s lost its connotation of singularity. I mean, not everyone is an icon, or an be, unless we’re allowed to worship a lot of idols equally.

Hence, the only real icon in contemporary music who comes readily to mind is Madonna. Of other highly visible current female pop artists, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, all are surely superstars, even shining much brighter than Madonna now in terms of airplay and sales, but have a very long way to go before ranking with Madonna as a true cultural icon.

As for other female pop artists, Aretha Franklin comes to mind, as she stands by herself and could rightly be considered an icon. Nancy Sinatra really defines the word, what with her signature look based on her signature song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”) and with an iconic career also defined by acting in the Elvis Presley classic Speedway and with Peter Fonda in the pioneering outlaw biker genre film The Wild Angels, her other landmark hits with songwriter Lee Hazlewood, the James Bond movie theme “You Only Lid Twice” and her chart-topping “Something stupid” duet with her father. Obviously her father was a male pop music and acting icon, as was Presley. Iconic actresses who come to mind include Marilyn Monroe, of course, and Bette Davis, since after all, she had a song written about her eyes.

In country music there are several female vocalists who are icons in the genre, namely Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, though Dolly would be the only one with the mainstream pop recognition to ensure her overall icon status. Likewise, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who, incidentally have another duet album just out, are both male vocal country music icons, but only Willie could be considered an icon in general, and he would pale in iconic level—now I’m using that idiotic construct—next to Johnny Cash, who most certainly was iconic any way you look at it.

My point is, the words “icon” and “iconic” should not be applied so freely if they are to retain the required sense of uniqueness. Me? I tend to use “legendary” in reference to any veteran artist with any kind of history, who’s reached a point where at least some kind of “legend” has been established.