When I heard that Jean Shepard had died, the first thing I thought about was Pete the Cab Driver, as we knew him. Miss Shepard was Pete Schindler‘s favorite singer, and the last time I heard from him he called to say thanks for playing one of her records. Pete used to drive in the Boston area, and drop in now and then to our studios on Quincy St., under Sanders Theater, to say hello on a Saturday morning. At some point he retired from cab-driving and moved to Derry, New Hampshire. But he’d still call in now and then.
Gordy Brown reports that when he heard about Jean Shepard’s death, he also thought of Pete, and called to let him know. But, sadly, he discovered that Pete himself had left us, back in February. I never met Jean Shepard, nor saw her perform live, so in some ways Pete’s death months ago is more immediate to me. In his absence, I’ll dedicate this note to him. Pete was a friendly fellow and a fan of traditional country music, who used to play Hillbilly at Harvard in his cab. Sinc and I always enjoyed his visits.
Jean Shepard was country through and through. Maybe that’s not surprising, as she came out of the Oklahoma-California axis that produced the Bakersfield Sound: Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. She was in fact an ‘Okie’, a daughter of sharecroppers who lived until age 11 in an Oklahoma cabin without electricity or running water, until her family moved to Visalia, California. Even from a young age she could sing; in high school she was playing bass in a group called The Melody Ranch Girls, and caught Hank Thompson‘s attention, who recommended her to Ken Nelson at Capitol Records. From Juli Thanki in The Nashville Tennessean:
“[Nelson] didn’t want to sign me. He wasn’t really sold on female singers,” she remembered in 2015. “But Hank Thompson was a very big artist at Capitol Records and he could demand things from (the label), which he did.”
With the exception of Kitty Wells and Patsy Montana, there were very few solo female artists in country music at that time. Labels didn’t see much viability or sales potential in women who weren’t part of an act. At first, it looked as though Shepard might have proven the record executives right when her debut single, 1952’s “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz,” failed to chart. Her next release, “A Dear John Letter,” a duet she recorded with Ferlin Husky, would be far more successful, selling more than one million records. It spent six weeks atop the country charts and hit No. 4 on the pop charts. It was the only No. 1 song of her career.
Many decades later Jean and Ferlin got together on one of Bill Anderson‘s gatherings, and talked about touring together, singing ‘Dear John’:
Her singing career was assured after that, but almost destroyed when her touring partner and husband of three years, country star Hawkshaw Hawkins was killed in the 1963 plane crash that also took the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas,
leaving Shepard a widow, eight months pregnant and raising a toddler. Just weeks after the death of her husband, she gave birth to Harold Franklin Hawkins II. Her fellow Opry members rallied around her, and WSM president Jack DeWitt told her that her job would be waiting when she was ready to return.
One Saturday, several months after the crash, she came to the Ryman Auditorium and stood on the side of the stage, watching the other singers. A few Saturdays later, she mustered the courage to step into the spotlight begin performing again. Although she was grieving, she resumed her music career and worked tirelessly to support her two small boys. —Juli Thanki, The Nashville Tennessean
Here she is on a TV show, with ‘Hello, Old Broken Heart’, an Audrey and Joe Allison song:
Notice the the nice vocal touches, even a hint of falsetto. At the same time, you can hear the confidence and determination in her singing; it’s a no-nonsense voice, pretty but straightforward. She was one of the first women to achieve a solo career in ‘country and western’, as it was then known, starting as a teenager (after the huge success of ‘Dear John’, she began touring with Ferlin Husky), and persevering through a long series of charting (but never again number one) singles and albums. From an NPR obituary:
[Jean] Shepard was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and she performed there until last year. But she didn’t get voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2011, and many saw the honor as overdue. At the award ceremony, she spoke about the start of her career as a woman in country music. “As you know, there wasn’t none of us,” she said. “But I was happy to do my part. I hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese.”
She had a spunky, confident personality, and never more so than in her defense of traditional country music. Chances are, if we pull a Jean Shepard album out of the library, just about everything on it will be playable on Hillbilly at Harvard—no egregious ‘Countrypolitan’ production, no pop songs, or what used to be called ‘middle of the road’:
After two decades on Capitol, Shepard switched to United Artists in 1973. Her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away”, was her biggest solo hit since the fifties. She had five productive years with UA, keeping her a presence on the charts until the late seventies. During that period, she created a bit of controversy when she served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, formed in response to Olivia Newton-John’s CMA Female Vocalist win in 1974. Of course, she was the perfect fit for an organization dedicated to keeping country music pure, as she was a more staunch traditionalist than any of her female contemporaries. . . —Country Universe
And she never relented. From a 2015 interview profile in the Tennessean:
. . . For her entire career, Shepard has been a fierce defender of the traditional country music she loves so dearly, even though the industry hasn’t always loved her back.
“It’s a good fight for a good cause and I mean that with all my heart,” she says. “Today’s country is not country, and I’m very adamant about that. 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.”
She was the genuine article. She may have not achieved quite the celebrity of some of her peers (Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline) or those who followed in her footsteps (Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton), but she showed the record companies that female singers could command every bit of the audience that the males could. She was no ‘Second Fiddle’: