Born Ollie Imogene Shepard, Pauls Valley native "Jean" Shepard is noted for several firsts in the field of country music. She was one of the first women to break the 1950s country music barrier. In 1952, upon Hank Thompson's recommendation, Shepard signed with Capitol Records. One year later she scored with a Number One country hit, a Korean War song entitled "A Dear John Letter," with narration from Ferlin Husky. It topped the country charts for twenty-three weeks and crossed over to the Top Five pop charts. Moreover, in 1955 she became one of the first women to join the Grand Ole Opry and is the first woman to hold membership in the "mother lode of country music" for more than forty-five years. Furthermore, she was the first woman in country music to sell a million records. Finally, she was the first woman in her genre to record a concept album. Her 1956 Songs of a Love Affair featured tunes from a single woman's point of view on one side, while the other side portrayed the wife's perspective.
Born on November 21, 1933, and reared in rural Oklahoma, Shepard avidly listened to the Grand Ole Opry and Bob Wills's radio broadcasts over Tulsa's KVOO. Shortly before the end of World War II Jean and her family relocated to Visalia, California. At the age of fourteen she and several friends formed The Melody Ranch Girls (an all-girl Western swing band), with whom she sang and played upright bass. While working three nights a week at Pismo Beach and performing on local radio station KNGS, she came to the attention of Thompson. With the Capitol and United Artists labels, she produced several Top Five country hits such as "A Satisfied Mind," "Beautiful Lies," "Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar," and "Slippin' Away." The latter won her a Grammy Award nomination in 1973 for Best Country Female Vocalist of the Year. This Oklahoma "honky tonk heroine" charted forty-five hits from 1953 to 1978 and continued to perform on the Grand Ole Opry at the turn of the twenty-first century.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (New York: Crown Publishers, 1993). Sheila Whiteley, ed., Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender (New York: Routledge Press, 1997). Paul Kingsbury, et al., Country: The Music and the Musicians (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994).
George O. Carney
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