One of the first women in country music to break down the gender barrier, and a six decade member of the Grand Ole Opry, has died. Jean Shepard, famous for recording such iconic songs as “A Satisfied Mind,” “Beautiful Lies,” and her duet with Ferlin Husky on the iconic “A Dear John Letter” passed away Sunday, September 24th. She was 82-years-old.
Born Ollie Imogene Shepard November 21st, 1933 in Oklahoma, but later migrating to the Bakersfield area of California, her first brush with music came in the form of the all female band the Melody Ranch Girls in 1948. She was discovered by Hank Thompson a few years later and signed to Capitol Records in 1952.
Like so many female country singers at the time, it was hard for Shepard to break through. Her first single “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz” did not chart, and making it doubly hard for Shepard was the fact that she continued to use a more honky tonk sound to her music, even while the industry was shifting to the Countrypolitan sound.
But with the #1 success of “A Dear John Letter,” Shepard was able to find success all of her own. In the mid 1950’s she broke through with a string of hits, and as a member of the Ozark Jubilee stage show broadcast nationwide on ABC. This led to signing with the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and success that would carry her career well into the 70’s with hits such as “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” “A Tear Dropped By,” and 1969’s “Then He Touched Me.”
The 70’s continued to see success for Shepard, and she became one of the leaders in the effort to keep country, country. The short-lived Association of Country Entertainers that was formed after big award wins by Olivia Newton-John and John Denver at the CMA Awards was helmed by Shepard.
This passion for preserving country music would continue throughout her life. When Blake Shelton made his famous “Old Farts and Jackasses” comments in 2013, Shepard’s response was, “We’ve got a young man in country music who has made some pretty dumb statements lately. What did he say? That traditional country music is for old farts and jack-you-know-whats? Well, I guess that makes me an old fart. I love country music. I won’t tell you what his name is…but his initials is BS…and he’s full of it!”
In 2015, speaking to The Tennessean around the 60th Anniversary of her Grand Ole Opry tenure, Jean Shepard said,
“I’m very adamant about how I feel about country music. And I don’t care who knows it, I’ll tell the world. Country music today is not the country music of yesterday. It’s a lot more important than that. Candy coated country don’t make it. They candy coat it and try to be something they ain’t. Well it ain’t gonna work my friend … It’s a good fight for a good cause and I mean that with all my heart. Today’s country is not country, and I’m very adamant about that. I’ll tell anybody who’ll listen, and some of those who don’t want to listen, I’ll tell them anyway. … Country music today isn’t genuine.”
Health issues made it difficult for Jean Shepard to perform recently, and she wasn’t the glitzy performer that kept her in the spotlight. But her contributions to country music as both a woman and a traditional country artist make her efforts just as important of her more well-recognized contemporaries.