Music

Opry Legend and Country Trailblazer Jean Shepard Dies at 82

Grand Ole Opry/Chris Hollo

Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard has passed away at the age of 82. Shepard, who opened doors for women in country music with her fiery brand of honky tonk music, is the only female singer to reach the 60-year mark as a member of the Grand Ole Opry.

Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on Nov. 21, 1933 in Pauls Valley, Okla., Shepard was raised in the San Joaquin Valley, an hour outside of Bakersfield, Calif. She fell in love with country music at an early age. At 15, she was already performing as lead singer and bass player for the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female group she co-founded.

After a chance meeting, Shepard caught the attention of country star Hank Thompson, who encouraged label executive Ken Nelson to sign Shepard to Capitol Records. Shepard, who preceded successful women country artists such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, became a chartbuster in an age when female country artists weren’t always considered viable by label heads. Shepard proved doubters wrong with a string of hits including A Dear John Letter (a duet with Ferlin Husky),  Twice the Lovin’ (in Half the Time), Slippin’ Away, and Second Fiddle to an Old Guitar.

 

Shepard was married to country singer and fellow Ozark Jubilee cast member Hawkshaw Hawkins, who died in the March 5, 1963 plane crash that also took the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.  Shepard, who was eight months pregnant at the time of Hawkins’ death, found herself a widow raising two young boys, Don Robin and Harold Franklin II, on her own. Ever a tireless fighter, Shepard returned to her job at the Opry several months after the crash.

In 1968, Shepard married musician Benny Birchfield and gave birth to a third son, Corey, the following year.

Shepard was an outspoken advocate for traditional country throughout her life. Most recently, she criticized the pop-influenced bro-country that rules mainstream country airwaves today.

Today’s country is not country and I’m very adamant about that, Shepard said. I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen, and some of those who don’t want to listen, I’ll tell them anyway…country music today isn’t genuine.

Several country artists mourned the loss of the country icon on social media.

So sad at the loss of my sweet Jean Shepard, Steve Wariner wroteShe was a true icon and a pioneer of the west coast sound. She was special!

She was a groundbreaker for women in country music. RIP, Travis Tritt shared.

Terri Clark acknowledged the role Shepard played in paving the way for women country signers, writing RIP Jean Shepard. You were a pistol and I adored you… thank you for blazing a trail for us.

Newcomer Kelsey Waldon, who follows in Shepard’s footsteps as a fearless and independent country traditionalist, described Shepard as One tough cookie. Trailblazer. Gutsy til the end.

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Opry Legend and Country Trailblazer Jean Shepard Dies at 82