Jean Shepard, the country singer known as “The grand lady of the Grand Ole Opry,” died Sunday, aged 82, as stated by an Opry spokeswoman. Shepard is survived by her husband, Mr. Benny Birchfield, and her sons Don Robin Hawkins, Harold Franklin Hawkins II and Corey Birchfield.
Jessie Schmidt, the spokeswoman, stated in a press release that Shepard was admitted into hospice care last week. According to Opry vice president and general manager Pete Fisher, the “Opry family” is deeply hurt by the news, but Shepard’s music will go on as her legacy.
In 1995, Shepard joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. She chose to tour solo instead of being part of a group, something that changed the way women were view in country music. She also had strong feminist lyrics, like “The Root of All Evil (Is a Man)” and “Twice the Lovin’ in Half the Time.”
Shepard became so iconic she even influenced huge country music stars like Loretta Lynn, who entered the scene ten years later. She even released the first concept album in country’s history, “Songs From a Love Affair,” launched in 1956.
Ollie Imogene “Jean” Shepard was born on November 21, 1933, in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and was one of ten brothers and sisters. The family soon moved near Bakersfield, California, where Sheperd would spend hours listening to the Grand Ole Opry.
Her career began in the forties when she was part of an all-girl band called the Melody Ranch Girls. Rumor has it that Western swing musician Hank Thompson saw Shepard perform at age 14, and from then on helped her begin recording.
Shepard reached her first country hit in 1953, with the single “A Dear John Letter,” a song she performed alongside fellow Hall of Fame member Ferlin Husky. The recording also was the first post-Second World War single performed by a woman country artist to have more than a million copies sold and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart.
She joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and in 2005 became the first female singer to spend half a century as a member. In 1963, her husband and fellow country singer, Hawkshaw Hawkins, was killed in a plane crash, the same incident that also killed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline.
Five years later she remarried to road manager and bluegrass musician Benny Birchfield, and they were together until her death.
She was very focused on keeping country music “pure” without pop influences. As such, she served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, formed when Olivia Newton-John won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974. In 2011 Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She performed on the Grand Ole Opry until her death.
“The best memories I have was when we would stay on the road and play cards because that is when I would get to spend time with mama. She was doing state fairs and stuff like that so they would always have someone there who would let us ride the rides and stuff. It was a really great childhood, we were truly blessed,” has stated Hawkshaw Hawkins, Shepard’s son.