Grand Ole Opry star Jean Shepard, a fierce practitioner and defender of traditional country music, died Sunday (Sept. 25) in Nashville at the age of 82. The Country Music Hall of Fame member had been in ill health for the past several months.
Born Ollie Imogene Shepard in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, on Nov. 21, 1933, Shepard and her family moved to Visalia, California, when she was a teenager. By that time, she had already been strongly influenced by the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. She formed her first band, the Melody Ranch Girls, in 1947.
Hank Thompson “discovered” Shepard when her band opened a show for him and in 1952 helped her get a contract with Capitol Records. The following year, she scored her first and only No. 1 single, “A Dear John Letter,” a duet with Ferlin Husky that tapped into the emotions of the Korean War then winding down. The song stayed at the top of the country chart for six weeks.
Possessed of a strong and assertive voice — and an attitude to match — she continued to rise in musical prominence via such Top 5 and Top 10 hits as “Forgive Me John” (also with Husky), “A Satisfied Mind,” “Beautiful Lies,” “I Thought of You,” “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” “I’ll Take the Dog” (with Ray Pillow), “If Teardrops Were Silver,” “Then He Touched Me” and “Slippin’ Away.”
She continued to chart singles every year through 1978.
In 1960, she married fellow Opry star, Hawkshaw Hawkins, who had come to the Opry the same year she did. She was eight months pregnant with his son when Hawkins died in the 1963 plane crash that also killed Patsy Cline and country star Cowboy Copas.
The outspoken Shepard was a board member of the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers, a group of prominent country music artists formed in 1974, soon after Australian pop star Olivia Newton-John won the CMA female vocalist of the year award. Their goal was to defend and promote traditional country music as a commercial art form. But Shepard said in subsequent interviews that the charter members, including the chief movers, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, lacked her crusading ardor and either drifted away or were pressured away from the organization.
She also publicly criticized Blake Shelton after he supposedly labeled veteran country artists as “old farts and jackasses.”
Shepard told her own story of what a career in country music was like from the 1950s forward in her 2014 autobiography, Down Through the Years.
In 2011, Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In accepting the honor, she boasted proudly of her persistence as a performer, saying, “I hung in there like hair on grilled cheese.”
Funeral plans have not been announced