Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard passed away earlier this morning. She had been in declining health for the past several months and had recently gone into hospice care. Jean was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for just over 60 years, one of only three Opry members to have marked that milestone, and the only female. Her last Grand Ole Opry appearance was last November, when she was recognized on her 60th anniversary as an Opry member.
Jean was a trailblazer as a female artist in country music. When she began recording at Capital Records with producer Ken Nelson in 1952, there was no precedent in country music for a young woman recording and touring on her own rather than as a member of a family team, couple, or as a band's "girl singer."
She was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Visalia, California. She was one of ten children in a family that loved music and that listened to the Opry on the radio. Hank Thompson spotted her when she was just 14 years old, singing and playing bass in an all-girl band she'd formed called the Melody Ranch Girls. Hank was the one who brought her to the attention of Capital Records. Prior to coming to the Opry in 1955, she was a star on Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee.
While never having the number of hit records as other female artists, such as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette, Jean set the table for each of these females, and the ones who followed. And I don't think she received the attention for that as much as she deserved. Today's young female artists owe her a great debt.
Jean loved traditional, honky-tonk country music and was often quoted on her thoughts regarding today's country music. She was not kind. She was blunt and spoke the truth. Many times she made her feelings known as to the direction that the Opry was taking. Yet pretty much every week, Jean was there, keeping traditional country music alive.
As another Opry legend, and a link to the past, has passed away, all of us who enjoyed Jean and her music will remember the times we saw and heard Jean. And we will do it with a smile on our face as we will remember Jean and what she stood for.
Prayers and thoughts go to Jean's family and friends as they prepare to honor the memory of Jean Shepard.