Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jean Shepard

This Sunday night, May 22nd, Jean Shepard will be officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The following article was printed in today's Wall Street Journal and it is an outstanding article. It was written by Barry Mazor, and I am going to post it here:

On Sunday night, at the age of 77, Jean Shepard, the "Grand Lady of the Grand Ole Opry," will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, alongside latter-day superstar Reba McEntire and classic songwriter Bobby Braddock. To fans of traditional, hardcore country music around the world, a common response will be "at last." What the famously outspoken honky-tonk heroine has to say about this delayed acceptance, characteristically, is not the studied sort of humble affirmation typical of so many Nashville stars, but to-the-point, good-natured and simply true. "I appreciate this; it's a thrill-and it should have happened 20 years ago."

She was the first woman in country music to have a million seller ("A Dear John Letter," a 1953 duet with Ferlin Husky); the first to offer a themed "concept" LP (the daring "Songs Of a Love Affair" in 1956); the supple, potent singer of dozens of hits, including such standards-to-be as "A Satisfied Mind," "Second Fiddle to an Old Guitar" and "Slippin' Away," and such unprecendented, transgressive songs for a 1950s country "girl singer" to take on as "Twice the Lovin' in Half the Time, "Beautiful Lies, "Did I Turn Down a Better Deal," and even "The Root of All Evil Is a Man." She remains a master of the lost art of country yodeling, envied by the likes of Dolly Parton, and has been a core star of the Opry longer than anyone else in the history of the broadcast. As she noted of that stand, when we sat down recently to discuss her career and coming induction, "I will be at the Opry 56 years in November, and I've enjoyed 58 of them! We still have people like Jimmy C. Newman, Jeannie Seely, Jack Greene, Stonewall Jackson, people who are family. If I needed something, I could call any of them."

The delay in garnering the votes of Hall of Fame electors needed for induction may have been set off when she spoke out about her dismay with the soft pop direction country music was taking in the Olivia Newton-John era, the mid 1970s.

"You know, when the music just started to change, I knew it was changing-and not for the good of country music. When people couldn't hear Ernest Tubb or Left Frizzell on the radio any more, it broke my heart. I may have made some mistakes when I got up and expressed my opinions on stage, and on the air, and if I hurt anybody's feelings, I'm sorry, but, you know, if the shoe fits-wear it! To me, you don't have a country band without a steel guitar and a fiddle; if you don't want them, you ain't country. I thank God that I came up in the '50s and '60s, because I got to work with the greatest people in the world."

Few could question that. Those "greatest people" of the '50s included Tubb, Frizzell and Hank Williams, Red Foley, Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. (Ms. Shepard's first husband, country star Hawkshaw Hawkins, with whom she had two sons, died in the same 1963 plane crash as Cline.) But her original, potent combination of direct singing and straightforward arrangements with songs that didn't flinch from describing the straight facts of working-class women's lives continues to work, as a model for younger performers today.

Elizabeth Cook, a frequent Opry performer set to perform in the Hall of Fame's "Medallion Ceremony" induction salute to Ms. Shepard, who's shared dressing rooms with her and whose own work can be both traditional and edgy in today's terms, noted in a separate interview, "Jean Shepard's legacy is huge. It's hard enough to be a woman in this field-and it really is-for my generation; I can't imagine what it must have been like for her in the '50s. The trail that she blazed is right on the heels of Kitty Well's, and as a honky-tonk singer with her own musical identity. That she refused to compromise her artistry, to succumb to the changing sounds and trends, has been a big inspiration. She not only showed that all that can be done, but that you can survive it."

Ms. Shepard was practically a survivor. She spent the first 10 years of her life in Oklahoma, one of 10 children to an impoverished family that made the historic "Okie" trek to Bakersfield, Calif., area during World War II. Singing by age 12, she was playing bass in an all female band, The Melody Ranch Girls, when honky-tonk star Hank Thompson spotted her and got her a contract with Capital Records at 17. She was soon backed by teenage Bakersfield friends, an unknown Buck Owens among them.

There was a famous moment when that poor girl from Oklahoma first learned she had a hit with "A Dear John Letter," an event that would change her life. As Ms. Shepard tells the story, she and her band were heading to Los Angeles for another recording session. "Buck and all of them were saying, 'Let's stop and get a Billboard.' And I thought, 'What do you want a billboard for?' This is how dumb I was. I didn't know it was a magazine. They said they wanted to check after my record. Well, how would you get that off a billboard, and how are you gonna get it in the car? They stopped adn brought in the magazine; Buck threw it in my lap and asked me, 'So how does it feel to have a No. 1 record?' And that's how they told me I had one."

Producer Ken Nelson, who's in the Hall of Fame himself, both encouraged her to take on those groundbreaking woman's songs and worried about her resulting image.

"Ken would find me more of those songs-and every once in a while I'd put one in that I liked. About, 'The Other Woman,' one of those, he said: 'It puts you in a bad light. We want to keep you as a sweet little country girl.' And I said, 'Well, then, Ken-you don't know me very well!' They always tried to protect my career," (In real life, whatever her image, Ms. Shepard has been happily married to Benny Birchfield, harmony singer with the bluegrass Osborne Brothers and road manager for Roy Orbison, for 43 years.)

Ms. Shepard won a special place in the hearts of forgotten, rural people, men and women alike, which was one of traditional country's attractions for her: "It was," she recalls, "the music of the everyday working people-the farmers, like my daddy; the mechanics; guys who worked in a gas station. This was their music; it told their story. It told of them working 60 hours a week and then going down to the beer joint on Saturday night and relaxing with a good cold beer. That's what it was about; it wasn't about being queen of England. I took the battered woman's side, the other woman's side, and every other side. I recoreded a story called 'Another Neon Night' and it's the story of a prostitute., and I got a lot of response from those things. Because this is the core of country music."

This week, Jean Shepard will be recognized not for going along and getting along, but for breaking and resetting the country mold. And it is about time.

(Congratulations from all of us to Jean Shepard upon her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame).


  1. Great article about a great lady. And I was thinking as I read it about what she said about her friends. Oswald talked about the old days when acts would come off the road and offer one another money if they needed it, and Vito Pelleteri said he saw much more generosity among country entertainers than in other fields.

  2. Thanks for the appreciation.
    -Barry Mazor

    You can comment or facebook "thumbs up" the original article here:


  4. What a moving tribute, and in the Wall Street Journal! America is beginning to understand what real country music is all about.
    Good work Barry Mazor!