Few country singers -- let alone female country singers -- of the 20th century produced a large body of work as enduring as Jean Shepard's. Her voice was pure country -- accent on both words. She had her first Top Ten hit in 1953, and her last almost exactly 20 years later. In between, she cut one great record after another, mostly on Capitol Records. Nearly all of them crackle, no matter the topic, with honky tonk angel spirit.
Born in Oklahoma, one of ten children in a sharecropper's family, Shepard grew up in Visalia, California, about 100 miles north of Bakersfield. As a teenager, she began her musical career by playing bass in the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female band formed in 1948. Hank Thompson discovered Shepard a few years after the group formed. Impressed by her talents, he helped her set up a record deal at Capitol Records, where she worked with Thompson's producer, Ken Nelson.
Shepard's first chart appearance was in 1953 as a duet partner with Ferlin Husky on "A Dear John Letter" and its sequel, "Forgive Me John." Shepard and Husky toured the country following their hit singles. In 1955, she had her first solo Top Ten single, "A Satisfied Mind," which was backed by the number 13 hit "Take Possession." Later in the year, she had another Top Ten hit with "Beautiful Lies"/"I Thought of You." Her streak of hit singles led to an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. That same year, she joined Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee and recorded Songs of a Love Affair, arguably the first concept album in country music history. Its 12 songs depict a marriage torn apart by a love affair.
For nearly ten years after the release of "Beautiful Lies," Shepard wasn't able to get a song into the Top Ten. In fact, she had only two Top 40 hits during that period -- "I Want to Go Where No One Knows Me" (number 18, 1958) and "Have Heart, Will Love" (number 30, 1959). She continued to record and tour -- she was even named the Top Female Singer of 1959 by Cash Box -- but nothing was breaking through to the record-buying public. This was primarily because she was a hardcore honky tonk singer in a time that country-pop was ruling the charts.
In 1963, her husband Hawkshaw Hawkins died in the same plane crash that killed Patsy Cline. The following year, she returned to the Top Ten with "Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar)." The song began a string of hits for Shepard. Although many of them failed to chart in the Top 20, she racked up 15 Top 40 hits between 1965 and 1970, including the Top Ten hits "I'll Take the Dog" (a duet with Ray Pillow, 1966), "If Teardrops Were Silver" (1966), and "Then He Touched Me" (1970). Shepard's hits continued throughout the '70s, though as the decade wore on she hit the Top 40 with less and less frequency. Her last hit single was 1978's "The Real Thing," which peaked at number 85.
After her hitmaking days were done, Shepard recorded much less frequently, but she continued to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and also toured, particularly in the U.K., where she had a strong fan base. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011, and published her autobiography, Down Through the Years, in 2014. She died two years later, at the age of 82. ~ Dan Cooper & Stephen Thomas Erlewine