100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition
2008 Edition: #34 (-3)
A member for 60 years, Jean Shepard was the Grand Lady of the Grand Ole Opry.
Jean Shepard entertained fans of classic country music for sixty 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 work has been reissued thoroughly by Bear Family Records, preserving her honky-tonk classics for future generations. Over time, she came to be known as the Grand Lady of the Grand Ole Opry. A member for 60 years, she became the longest-running female cast member, eclipsing Minnie Pearl’s 56-year run among all female cast members in history. In 2011, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2014, she released her autobiography, Down Through the Years. In 2016, Shepard passed away at age 82, from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease.
- A Dear John Letter (with Ferlin Husky), 1953
- Beautiful Lies, 1955
- A Satisfied Mind, 1955
- Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar), 1964
- Many Happy Hangovers to You, 1966
- I’ll Take the Dog (with Ray Pillow), 1966
- Then He Touched Me, 1970
- Slippin’ Away, 1973
- Songs of a Love Affair, 1956
- Got You On My Mind, 1961
- Heartaches and Tears, 1962
- Many Happy Hangovers, 1966
- Slippin’ Away, 1973
100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition
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Previous: #38. Lynn Anderson
As I commented back in 2008:
“Kevin – you have Ms Shepard rated much too low – I would put her in the top ten among female performers. While Kitty Wells was the first really sustained big star among the women, Kitty quickly got away from the feisty into the more conventional “girl” songs. Jean Shepard was the Ur-Loretta Lynn, tackling topics and displaying attitude that none of other women of the 1950s dared try.
Her 1956 album SONGS OF A LOVE AFFAIR is arguably the first “themed” album in country music history. As a vocalist she had a powerful voice that few others could match. She was a terrific yodeler and a great stage entertainer. Time (55+ years since her start in the business) has cost her some of her vocal power but I saw her two years ago and she still is an effective singer and stage presence.
There are many among the 70+ set who consider her the greatest female country vocalist ever and the British music critics such as Pat Campbell, Bob Powell and David Allen held her in similar high record. While I don’t regard her quite that highly, she was a force of nature during her day.”
The fact that Richard Weize of Bear Family thought to issue a box set of her early Capitol recordings screams volumes about her significance and it is not screaming that she is the 37th greatest female artist. She continued performing until about 2015, and even at the end she was a powerful performer
Just kind of checking in now that we’re almost 2/3 of the way through this 10th Anniversary Edition. It looks like we’re still waiting for big jumps from Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. I assume Taylor Swift is not going to be entering this high and you’ll find no argument from me on that. Will there be a little summary at the end of how many new entries there were and who was bumped off to make room? Two that I’ve been disappointed not to see again are Charly McClain and Deana Carter.
I have a steadfast rule of not getting pulled into debates over ranking, because that’s a bottomless pit if I start!
But speaking generally, movement on the list from 2008-2018 happened because of a handful of key factors:
1. The input of the entire CU staff, as opposed to the original list that I did completely by myself.
2. New music released between 2008 and 2018.
3. An expansion in the list’s scope to focus beyond just mainstream success on country radio, and consideration of impact in Americana and the international market.
4. Last and least frequently, a need to adjust rankings that were too high/too low the first time around.
Charly McClain and Deana Carter are largely casualties of #2 and #3. Jean Shepard didn’t drop as much as most others on this area of the list, a reflection of her impact being considered more than her mainstream success.