(Biography Courtesy of Paul W. Dennis)
Kitty Wells may have been the reigning Queen of Country Music during the the 1950s, but in the eyes of many Jean Shepard had at least as good a claim to the title. Whereas Kitty Wells, after the uncharacteristically defiant “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” reverted back to songs of domestic bliss and of being the “wronged woman,” Jean Shepard kept pushing the boundaries for female country singers. Jean may not have pushed things as far as Loretta Lynn did during the late 1960s and 70s, but she laid the groundwork for Loretta and those to follow. Among Europeans, whose tastes in country music run to more traditional sounds, many regard her as the greatest of all female country singers, a sentiment that was echoed by such leading British county music journalists as Pat Campbell, Bob Powell, and David Allen.
Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21, 1933 in Oklahoma, she was the child of parents who moved to Bakersfield, California, as a result of the Dust Bowl that engulfed the midwest during the 1930s. Since Shepard has been staunchly performing modern traditional country music for over sixty years, it seems only fitting that she grew up and started her career in the area surrounding Bakersfield, CA.
Jean began her career as a bass player in the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female band formed in 1948. Not long thereafter, she came to the attention of Hank Thompson, who, impressed by her talents, helped her get a record deal with Capitol Records–where she worked with Thompson’s producer, Ken Nelson. At the time she inked her deal, Shepard was still a teenager.
On her Capitol recordings, Shepard was a honky-tonker whose hard-core sound could rival any of her male counterparts. While her first single “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz” failed to chart, it showed enough promise for Capitol to team her with another promising singer, Ferlin Husky, for the 1953 chart-topper “A Dear John Letter,” a song which resonated with many returning Korean War veterans. After this, the solo hits started coming with “Beautiful Lies” and “A Satisfied Mind” being among the biggest hits of 1955 ( “A Satisfied Mind” was also a major hit for Porter Wagoner and Red Foley, but after you’ve heard Jean Shepard’s version, you will forget about the others).
Along the way, Shepard became a part of Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee (broadcast from Springfield, MO on ABC TV) from 1955 to 1957, and she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, where she has remained a member to this day. It was during this period that Jean released what may have been country music’s first album centered around a theme in Songs of a Love Affair. Shepard had a hand in writing all twelve songs on this album.
She continued to have hits throughout the fifties and sixties, although like many other traditional country singers her hits became increasingly smaller as rock ‘n roll and the Nashville sound came into prominence. Lost in the shuffle were such excellent singles as “Act Like A Married Man,” “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone,” “I Used To Love You,” and “Have Heart, Will Love.”
In 1960 Shepard married Hawkshaw Hawkins, a minor star whose forte was his live stage shows rather than recording success. Jean was pregnant with his son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. at the time of the 1963 plane crash that claimed Hawkins’ life (as well as that of Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Patsy Cline).
After her son’s birth, Shepard dealt with the tragedy of her husband’s death by pouring herself back into her career. In 1964 she rebounded back near the top of the charts with the feisty “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” a song which spotlighted her yodeling ability. The next few years would produce more hits including “Seven Lonely Days,” “Many Happy Hangovers To You,” and a rare ballad “Another Lonely Night.” She also teamed up with Ray Pillow for several duets, including the big hit “I’ll Take the Dog” in 1966.
Between 1965 and 1970 Shepard charted fifteen Top 40 hits. Eventually, though, Capitol–blessed with a deep roster that included Wanda Jackson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Sonny James–quit pushing her recordings to radio.
A switch to United Artists (UA) in 1973 re-ignited her career as her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away,” went to #4, and was followed by such great singles as “At The Time,” “I’ll Do Anything It Takes (To Stay With You),” “Poor Sweet Baby,” “Tip of My Fingers,” and “Another Neon Night.” One of her UA albums, Poor Sweet Baby, was comprised entirely of songs written by Bill Anderson. Shepard remained with UA for five years. Since then she has recorded only occasionally for various minor labels.
Along the way, Shepard married Benny Birchfield, (best known for his tenor harmonies during his tenure with the Osborne Brothers bluegrass group). She also served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, the perfect spokesperson for this very traditionalist organization.
Jean Shepard continues to perform regularly on the Grand Old Opry where she is indeed, the “Grand Lady of the Opry,” and a national treasure. She also tours occasionally, sometimes performing with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr.
(CSC) 1. What a great honor it is to visit with you! What’s the latest with you?
Well thank you for having me, I appreciate it. My world just keeps trudging along. Same old, same old! (Laughs)
(CSC) 2. During World War II your family moved out West to California in search of a better life, with music being an important part of your lifestyle, how did you and your family share that talent together?
Well we would always sing together in church and my mother played piano so we’d gather around and sing. I’ve got a brother that could have been a big star had he let me get him a recording contract but he wasn’t interested. He sang better than Merle Haggard or any of em’. He just wasn’t interested and that kind of hurt my feelings because he wouldn’t let me help him get a career started.
(CSC) 3. During the 1950’s you were one of the very first female pioneers in country music to make waves in a time when male singers dominated the charts. How do you live up to that title, and how did you address the sexism towards women singers?
I’ll tell you what, a lot of people might not realize it but some of the men singers, to a certain extent, still think that there’s no place in country music for women. In fact when Hank Thompson told Ken Nelson, my producer at Capitol Records, that he needed to sign me he told Hank, “Oh Hank there’s just not a place in country music for women.” But after the “Dear John Letter” sold three or four million… I said, “Ya think there still ain’t no place for us?”
(CSC) 4. You formed your own band called “The Melody Ranch Girls” during your high school years, which attracted quite a following. What can you recall from the early days of your initial success?
Yeah we would play the same place every weekend; Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We had quite a following, we really did! Well, Ken Nelson had come to see me at one of those dates and it just went from there really. Some of the girls in the band got a little pissed off because they thought that Capitol was going to sign the whole group, but we weren’t that good. We really weren’t, we just had a lot of fun with it. I remember the fun part of it. I especially remember one night three or four of the girls got into a fight and I said, “Well it’s time to get out.” (Laughs)
(CSC) 5. Your first #1 hit, “A Dear John Letter,” the moving duet that you recorded with Ferlin Husky put you on the path to becoming a country music star. What was it like working with Ferlin and what does that song mean to you all these years later?
My trip with Ferlin has been a trip; let me tell ya. My mother and daddy had to sign him as my legal guardian because at that time I wasn’t old enough to leave the state of
(CSC) 6. Please tell me about your song, “A Satisfied Mind.” How did you find it?
Oh dear! Now Porter Wagoner and Red Foley recorded it, but I went up to the music library at KWTO, a radio station in
(CSC) 7. You worked for some time on the Ozark Jubilee with Red Foley in
I love Red Foley! He could sing anything. He would have been a big Pop star if he wanted to, but his heart was in country. I love him very dearly.
(CSC) 8. What are some of your fondest memories from working with him?
I can’t tell some of em’!! (Laughs) Oh dear let’s see. He wanted me to sing “One By One,” a song that he recorded with Kitty Wells. I don’t sing as high as Kitty and I told him, “Daddy Red I can’t sing that song, it’s too high” and he said, “Oh you can do it!!” He would not lower that one key to help me sing that song. We got through it but at the end my voice just cracked and I said, “Oh my God” and he put his arms around me and said, “Don’t worry about it sweetheart it just lets em know you’re human!” It was a wonderful experience working with such a wonderful, wonderful man.
(CSC) 10. You’ve held many dear friendships throughout the years in your career, who are some of the female entertainers that mean the most to you?
Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette! I love them so much. You know why? Because they sing country! There wasn’t none of this bare midriffs and tore blue jeans…back then it was done right.
(CSC) 11. You recorded a handful of songs in your career that were considered too risky for a female singer at the time. Regardless, they became smash hits for you!
Oh yeah! (Laughs) One of em’ is called, “Another Neon Nap.” But it was such a haunting melody and it told a good story. (Sings song) “The neon light throws a sad song on the ceiling, there’s a bottle standing empty by the bed, and there’s a man lying next to me and I don’t even know his name.” I only sang it one time on the Grand Ole Opry but I really loved its melody!
(CSC) 12. What motivated you to take the chance to record them?
Because by that time I had gotten out from underneath Ken Nelson’s wing. Ken wouldn’t let me do any stuff like that. I guess I felt that I should step out and take a stand for what I wanted to do, and I did.
(CSC) 13. You’ve made a lot of firsts for female country singers in the business, one of them being the first woman inducted into the Grand Ole Opry for over 50 years. What does your membership mean to you?
Yes and I’ve got news about something that I’d like to clarify right here now. Now I love Little Jimmy Dickens better than a hog loves slop, but Little Jimmy Dickens has not been at the Grand Ole Opry for 60 years like they say; he was gone for 17 years. I am the only person that has been here 53 consecutive years. I’m not saying this to hurt Little Jimmy, as I say I hope he lives to be 150 because he’s the sweetest guy in the world! I just wanted to clear that up. I’ve begun to clear this up everywhere I go. I told the guys here at the Grand Ole Opry, “If it’s important enough for y’all to lie about this, it’s important enough for me to tell the truth.” And that’s the way I feel about it. My membership means a lot to me because I don’t think another woman will ever reach the point that I’ve reached being at the Grand Ole Opry for 53 years, 54 this coming November. I don’t think any other woman will do that.
(CSC) 14. Where would you like to see the Grand Ole Opry headed in the future, it seems like it is changing constantly!
You’re really wanting to get me started ain’t ya? (Laughs) Christian, I just wish it would go back to the traditional country music that we all love so well, and I know it’s not going to. It breaks my heart to see something that I’ve been a part of for 55 years just kind of fade away. It makes me older, but I have worked with the greats in country music and I am so proud to have known people like Lefty Frizzell, Don Gibson, Marty Robbins, Carl Smith and Webb Pierce. These people are what made country music and you hardly ever hear their records anymore. They’ve got some great records.
(CSC) 15. Who are some newer artists that you enjoy listening to?
I like Patty Loveless, Alan Jackson, and Chris Young. Chris is one of my favorites!! I had the pleasure of introducing him on the Opry for the first time. After he finished his performance and his band had left the stage I said to him, “Would you like to sing another one with just you and your guitar?” And he said, “Yeah here’s one that my daddy taught to me.” He did a Don Gibson song and Jimmy Camps and all of them were standing around on the stage and I said to them, “Hey get out there and pick with that boy, don’t tell me you all don’t know that song.” He’s a nice young man and I like em’ when they’re nice. They had a little group on one night, and I don’t even know who they were but Porter Wagoner and Little Jimmy Dickens walked by and this group was standing there looking at their sparkly Nudie Suits and one of the boys in the group sarcastically said, “Man if we stay around here long enough we’ll get one of those suits.” And I said to him, “Don’t worry son you ain’t gonna be here that long,” Because it hacked me off that they were makin’ fun of Porter and Little Jimmy.
(CSC) 16. With all the great wisdom that you have what’s the best advice that you could give to aspiring artists who are tying to make it?
Lord God get an education first!! Don’t depend on the country music. (Laughs) If you feel like you’ve got it hang in there and work hard for it. If you do have it than sooner or later you’ll make your waves.
(CSC) 17. What motivates you in life?
25 grandkids! (Laughs) What motivates me is to do the best that I can do to keep country music…country! Country music is a dying art but it’s almost a goal to keep doing what I’m doing.
(CSC) 18. Is there anything that you’d like to say to your fans?
No, y’all just hang in there and keep country music country as Christian says… We love all of you! I really like my fans and all that they do for me. I heard something Patti Page said one night up here at the Cracker Barrel when someone came up to her and asked for her autograph. She graciously signed her autograph and the people said to her, “Don’t that make you mad when they do that?” She said, “No, it makes me unhappy when they don’t ask.” If it wasn’t for the fans, we wouldn’t be here! But our fans (mine), a lot of them are getting old like me and kind of dying off and I hate that because the older fans are very supportive of us. The people out there think that the buying public is from 20 to 30. I’ve got news for em’…the buying public is from 45 to 65. That’s your buying public and I still sell a lot of records. I’ve been gone from Capitol Records since 1972 and I still get big checks from them after 30 some odd years. That makes you feel really good, it really does! Of course we’re going to have albums and pictures for sale on my new website that we’re launching. ( http://www.JeanShepardCountry.com )
(CSC) 19. Do you have plans to release any new material?
I’ve got a Gospel album that my band and I just recently recorded. We’re fixin’ to go in the studio and just make something that is new. I want to cut about 12 songs that I want to do. The songs that I choose are going to be my choice and there isn’t going to be any input on em’. (Laughs) I’ve never had that freedom before with an exception of the last few records that I recorded with my band. There was always someone telling me, “No you have to do it this way.” Well crap, I’ll do it the way I want to!
(CSC) 20. Tell us about the time that you first met Jeannie Seely at a show in Pennsylvania.
Yeah she just stood there like a dumb blonde and she bought a picture. I’m seven or eight years older than Seely. I was probably about 20 at the time and she might have been 14 or 15. She just stood there and looked at me and she wouldn’t say anything to me. I stood there and just kind of looked at her and said, “You want me to autograph that?” and she said, “Yes I do.” And I said, “Well ask me.” (Laughs) We’ve been good friends ever since.
(CSC) 21. You had the chance to participate in the most recent edition of the “Country’s Family Reunion” taping. What was that like for you?
Oh it was great! Now the ones we did in 1999, the first ones we did, they were so wonderful. We lost 17 of the acts in the past nine or ten years; Johnny Russell, Billy Walker, Johnny Paycheck, Porter Wagoner, and so many others. The new bunch was a lot of fun though. We had a lot of new acts on it. Well they’re not really new but they’re younger than some of us older people. Larry Black of Gabriel Productions did a wonderful job with the tapings. If we wait another nine or ten years to do some of them there’s not going to be many of us left. We just lost Ernie Ashworth this past week and it’s taken its toll but life always does.
(CSC) 22. Lastly, after all is said and done…what do you want to be remembered for?
My love of the music! Because I love what I do, and I do what I love; I just want to be known as a good person who was good for country music.
Please check out Jean's official website here: http://www.JeanShepardCountry.com