Jean Shepard: An inspirational country music pioneer

Jean Shepard broke down barriers and inspired female artists who followed

Jean Shepard was more than ‘just’ a country music artist. She was instrumental in changing the way country fans – and the music industry – regarded female singers.

Jean Shepard pictured in 1971
Jean Shepard pictured in 1971

In the early 1950s, solo female country artists were very few and far between, Kitty Wells being one of the most notable of the few. The absence of female country singers was something of a self-fulfilling prophesy on the part of record label executives: they were convinced that nobody wanted to hear female artists so they didn’t sign any, and then of course, no female singers were cutting songs and no records by female artists were showing up on the charts. Those record execs could look at the charts and say, “See? Songs by female artists aren’t selling.”

Her big break came thanks to her own determination when she pretty much invited herself onto the stage in 1952 while Hank Thompson, a big star at the time, was performing. Thompson was impressed both by Shepard’s talent and her resolve and convinced the very reluctant execs at his label (Capitol Records) to sign her.

After one non-charting single, Capitol teamed her with one of their male artists, Ferlin Husky, on “A Dear John Letter,” a million-plus seller that topped the Country charts and became a pop hit too. Touring with Husky – he was appointed her legal guardian as she was still a minor – she quickly became a fan favorite in her own right. Her popularity was such that, when she was only 22, she became only the third female artist invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, the other two being Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl. (At the time of her death, Shepard was the only female artist to have been a member of the Opry for sixty years.)

Inspiration to female artists

By breaking through as a female singer in a male dominated music world, she inspired other young women to persevere with their craft and not give up the dream. So many female country stars that came along after her have cited Shepard as a true role model.

Shepard’s resilience was also remarkable in the face of so much adversity in her personal life. She grew up desperately poor, the daughter of a sharecropper with her nine sibling in a home without running water or electricity. Later, at the height of her career, when she was eight months pregnant, she lost her husband Hawkshaw Hawkins in the 1963 plane crash that also killed Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas. Despite her grief, she returned to the Opry and the recording studio, determined to maintain her career and support her small children.

Country’s first ‘concept album’

A rarity for female artists at the time, Shepard was not afraid to sing and record songs, including “The Root of All Evil (Is A Man)” and “Twice The Lovin’ In Half The Time,” that focused on ‘gritty’ subjects such as adultery and broken marriages from a woman’s point of view. Artists such as Loretta Lynn note that Shepard’s album “Songs of a Love Affair” opened the door for them to sing about subjects that might have otherwise been nixed by record labels. “Songs of a Love Affair” is recognized as the first ‘concept’ album in Country music.

Jean Shepard, with Bill Anderson, celebrating 60 years as an Opry member in 2015. Photo: Chris Hollo
Jean Shepard, with Bill Anderson, celebrating 60 years as an Opry member in 2015. Photo: Chris Hollo

Often described as ‘feisty’ – she made no secret of her distaste for modern ‘pop-country’ music – she had strong convictions and a strength of character that stayed with her throughout her personal and professional life. Jean Shepard was a pioneer and an inspiration to any aspiring artist who feels the odds are stacked against them. As Brenda Lee said when Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011: “She busted down the doors.”

For a discography and more about Jean Shepard’s long career at the Opry, click here.

Ollie Imogene (‘Jean’) Shepard, November 21, 1933 – September 25, 2016. She is survived by her husband, Benny Birchfield, and sons Don Robin Hawkins, Harold Franklin Hawkins II and Corey Birchfield.