May 29, 2008
The Grand Lady of the Grand Ole Opry.
Jean Shepard has been entertaining fans of classic country music for fifty years with her honky-tonk stylings and brass delivery. At her peak, she was the one of the strongest female forces in country music, a salty counterpoint to the timid balladeers and lush pop divas she shared the charts with.
She was originally from Oklahoma, but her family moved out west when she was a child, settling in California. She got her musical start in Bakersfield, forming The Melody Ranch Girls. The band developed a strong local following. One night, Hank Thompson caught one of their performances and was blown away. Through him, Shepard secured a record deal with Capitol. She was still a teenager when she signed with the label.
On record, Shepard turned in a honky-tonk sound that rivaled the grit of all of her male contemporaries. She had her breakthrough in 1953 with “A Dear John Letter”, a duet with Ferlin Husky that topped the charts. She followed it up with two big solo hits in 1955, “Beautiful Lies” and “A Satisfied Mind”, the latter of which was also a big hit for Porter Wagoner.
She was a part of Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee from 1955 to 1957, and she joined Minnie Pearl and Kitty Wells as one of the few female Grand Ole Opry members when she was inducted in 1956. The Opry became the foundation of her career, a place where she was a superstar even when radio’s fickle pendulum swung too far in the pop direction. As the sweet sounds of Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves came into favor, Shepard’s recording career faltered, and she dealt with personal heartache in 1963, when a plane crash claimed the life of her husband of three years, Hawkshaw Hawkins, along with Cline and Cowboy Copas.
As she dealt with the tragedy, Shepard turned her attention back to the music that was always her source of strength. She had a big comeback in 1964 with “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar)”, and she became a regular on the radio again throughout the sixties and early seventies. She found great success with Ray Pillow as her duet partner, including the big hit “I’ll Take the Dog” in 1966. She played up the honky-tonk image flawlessly, with songs like “Many Happy Hangovers For You”, and showed herself to be quite the balladeer with “Another Lonely Night.”
After two decades on Capitol, Shepard switched to United Artists in 1973. Her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away”, was her biggest solo hit since the fifties. She had five productive years with UA, keeping her a presence on the charts until the late seventies. During that period, she created a bit of controversy when she served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, formed in response to Olivia Newton-John’s CMA Female Vocalist win in 1974. Of course, she was the perfect fit for an organization dedicated to keeping country music pure, as she was a more staunch traditionalist than any of her female contemporaries.
The nature of the music business being what it is, that purity made Shepard more difficult to market, and she ceased recording for a very long time. Her presence remained, however, and she came to be known as the Grand Lady of the Grand Ole Opry. Now a member for 53 years, she is currently the longest-running female cast member, and historically speaking, trails only Minnie Pearl’s 56-year run among all female cast members in history. Her work has also been reissued thoroughly by Bear Family Records, preserving her honky-tonk classics for future generations.
- “A Dear John Letter” (with Ferlin Husky), 1953
- “Beautiful Lies”, 1955
- “A Satisfied Mind”, 1955
- “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar), 1964
- “Slippin’ Away”, 1973
- Songs of a Love Affair, 1956
- Many Happy Hangovers, 1966
- Slippin’ Away, 1973