Jean Shepard had achieved a feat that only a few could in the country music genre. She was the first woman who had, for 60 consecutive years, remained a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Currently owned and operated by Opry Entertainment, it is a weekly stage concert for American country music.
Born Ollie Imogene Shepard in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, on November 21, 1933, she was raised in Visalia, California. She played in an all-female band called the Melody Ranch Girls as a teenager. This band was formed in 1948. Between 1956 and 1981, she recorded 24 studio albums.
One of the 73 singles that she released to the Hot Country Songs chart had reached the number-one spot. With the help of a national television gig and the Opry, she enjoyed enduring success and stardom. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
A few years later, Hank Thompson discovered Shepard and helped her sign a contract with Capitol Records in 1952. In the same year, she recorded Crying Steel Guitar Waltz, which was her first single for the label. Although it failed to chart, she finally got a breakthrough with A Dear John Letter.
This duet with Ferlin Husky made it to number four on the Billboard pop chart. It also became a great crossover hit after striking a chord with the audiences. She recorded Songs of a Love Affair, her first studio album, after joining Ozark Jubilee in 1955. After a streak of hit singles, she got an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. The only other female stars who were a part of the Opry were Minnie Pearl and Kitty Wells.
Shepard married her fellow Opry star Hawkshaw Hawkins in 1960. Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash three years later. Just a month after the crash, Shepard gave birth to Hawkshaw Jr., their son. She later married country music singer and musician, Benny Birchfield. In 1964, she returned to the country music scene with Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar).
She had two more big hits with A Tear Dropped By and Someone’s Gotta Cry. Both the songs were included in the 1967 LP Heart, We Did All That We Could. She had only one major hit in 1968, but the release of her albums continued. Shepard got a top-10 hit with the release of Then He Touched Me in 1969.
Shepard entered the 1970s with three hits, which included Another Lonely Night. She recorded her first single Slippin’ Away in 1973 for United Artists Records. Written by Bill Anderson, this song proved to be her biggest solo hit since the 1950s. It reached to the fourth position on the Billboard country chart.
Her streak of hits continued throughout the 1970s. The most significant among them were the three top-20 hits. They included At the Time and I’ll Do Anything it Takes (to Stay with You). In 1977 and 1978, she produced minor hits on the Billboard country chart, recording for the smaller label, GRT. Her last major hit under this label was The Real Thing, which was recorded in 1978.
She had also served as the president of the Association of Country Entertainers in the 1970s. This organization was formed in response to Olivia Newton-John being named the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974. The association was formed mainly by purists who intended to keep country music away from pop influences.
Shepard continued performing at the Grand Ole Opry and touring in the US and the UK. She celebrated 50 years as an Opry member in 2005. In 2011, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She became the first woman to remain the Grand Ole Opry’s member for 60 consecutive years on November 21, 2015. The following year, she died of Parkinson’s disease. Shepard was 82 years of age at the time of her death.