May 6, 1996 McFarland, Wisconsin
A long rich and storied chapter of the Grand Ole Opry comes to a close with the death of Jean Shepard. The 82 year-old spitfire had been a member of the longest running radio show family for 60 years.
This morning the singer went home.
Jean Shepard and Gregory Humphrey (Your blogger a.k.a. DekeRivers)
Shepard was more than a singer. She was very much a trailblazer. Lets not forget at the time when Shepard started her career record labels didn’t see much viability or sales potential in women who weren’t part of an act.
Her 1956 LP, “Songs of a Love Affair,” featuring songs about a marriage broken up by adultery, was one of the genre’s first concept albums, and other gutsy, forthright recordings such as “Act Like a Married Man” helped to pave the way for artists like Loretta Lynn.
Ollie Imogene Shepard was born November 21, 1933 in Pauls Valley, Okla. The daughter of sharecroppers, Shepard — and her nine siblings — grew up singing in the church, and was drawn to the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. She grew up in a home without electricity or running water. And every year, her parents saved their pennies to afford a new battery for their AM radio. Shortly before her eleventh birthday, the Shepard family moved to Visalia, California, about 100 miles north of Bakersfield.
In 1952, country star Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys played a concert near Shepard’s town. She got up onstage to sing a song with them and impressed Thompson. (Both Thompson and Shepard have signed my guitar.) Below is Shepard’s signature.
In November of 1955, Shepard got the best birthday present a young country singer could ask for when, at 22, she was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. She was one of three women who were Opry members at that time: the other two were Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl.
During the 1950s, she also became a cast member of the program “Ozark Jubilee,” where she met Hawkshaw Hawkins, the man who would become her husband. The two singers toured together and, in November 1960, they married on the stage of a Wichita, Kansas auditorium. In 1961, Shepard gave birth to son Don Robin.
Hawkins died in the March 5, 1963 plane crash that also claimed the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.
I have long adored this woman and her style. She called them as she saw them, and when it came to how country music has changed I was with her every inch of the way. Throughout her career, Shepard was an outspoken opponent of pop-country music. “Today’s country is not country, and I’m very adamant about that,” she told The Tennessean in 2015. “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.”
Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011 and on Nov. 21, 2015, the Grand Ole Opry celebrated Shepard’s 60th anniversary as a member; she was the only female member to have reached the six-decade mark. At the time of her death, Shepard was the longest-running member of the Opry, and had appeared on the show into her 80s.
There is an absence on the Opry stage with the legends now passed away. We can only imagine the music they are making now on the biggest stage ever seen.