Second To None 

Opry veteran Jean Shepard helped pave the way for women in country music

Opry veteran Jean Shepard helped pave the way for women in country music

”I’m tired of playing second fiddle to an old guitar,“ swore Grand Ole Opry star Jean Shepard on ”Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),“ a Top 10 single in 1964. It was Shepard’s first hit recording after her husband, country singer Hawkshaw Hawkins, went down in the same 1963 plane crash that killed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. In press coverage of the tragedy, Shepard’s grief—as well as that of Copas’ daughter, who lost both her father and her husband, pilot Randy Hughes—took a backseat to the news of Cline’s death. It wasn’t the first time that Shepard had played second fiddle to one of her female counterparts, nor would it be the last.

Throughout the 1950s, the fiery honky-tonker was a perennial runner-up to Kitty Wells for top female vocalist honors in the country trade magazines. In the ’60s, Shepard’s star was eclipsed first by Cline’s and, later, by those of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, two women whose plucky, emotionally direct styles owed a considerable debt to Shepard’s hard-hitting approach. It was also during the ’60s that the Opry brass dubbed newcomer Connie Smith the ”Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry,“ even though Shepard, a petite blonde in the Smith mold, had been winning the hearts of the show’s fans ever since she joined its cast in 1955.

A class act who’s never been given to sour grapes, Shepard would be the last person to catalog these incongruities, much less to point out that she still isn’t a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Surely this last state of affairs will be remedied soon: Shepard is one of the finest honky-tonkers ever and a pioneering woman of country music to boot.

A 45-year cast member of the Opry and still a regular on the show, Shepard was the first country female of the postwar era to launch a successful solo career on her own—that is, without a man at her side. Wilma Lee Cooper made her way as part of a husband-and-wife team; Kitty Wells had been the featured ”girl singer“ in the road show of her husband Johnnie Wright, who was at the time one-half of the popular duo Johnnie & Jack. When Shepard braved country’s boys club, though, she opened her own doors.

Historians also cite Shepard as the first female country singer to release a concept album, Songs of a Love Affair (1954). And while Kitty Wells may have been the first to unmask the double standard applied to honky-tonking women in ”It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,“ Shepard did more than just broach the subject. With ”Two Whoops and a Holler,“ she had the gumption to take men to task who perpetuated such prejudice. Shepard has always been a scrapper; as one of 10 children born to Oklahoma sharecroppers, she had to be tough.

Like so many Dust Bowl refugees, the Shepards migrated west to find fortune in California’s pastures of plenty. They settled in Visalia, in the San Fernando Valley, and it was there that Jean, spurred on by her father’s Jimmie Rodgers and Elton Britt records, taught herself to yodel. While in high school, she hooked up with some friends and formed the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-girl band that played area dances and parties on weekends. Jean sang and played bass fiddle with the group, which, by the early ’50s, had graduated to the West Coast dance hall circuit.

Shepard got her big break in 1952, when she went to hear Hank Thompson & His Brazos Valley Boys at a local night spot. Thompson, who was riding high at the time—his smash hit ”The Wild Side of Life“ topped the charts for 15 straight weeks that year—asked Shepard to get up and sing with him. He also wondered why she didn’t have a record deal and proceeded to plead her case with Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson. By fall, Nelson had the 18-year-old in the studio with some of the West Coast’s finest pickers, including steel guitar whiz Speedy West and fleet-fingered fret-man Jimmy Bryant.

The sides that Shepard recorded at that first session, notably ”Twice the Lovin’ (in Half the Time)“ and ”Crying Steel Guitar Waltz,“ didn’t exactly burn up the charts. They did, however, show her to be a gutsy, powerful singer with a bright future. Shepard delivered on that promise soon enough when ”A Dear John Letter,“ a Korean War tearjerker that featured a recitation by a then-unknown Ferlin Husky, shot to the top of the charts the following spring. The song also established Shepard as a singer who wasn’t afraid to tackle taboo themes—in this case, infidelity.

Over the years, Shepard, whose bell-like alto seems tailor-made for sobbing steel guitars and pealing saloon-style piano, would sing many songs that found her in cheating situations, ”The Other Woman“ and ”A Thief in the Night“ among them. ”Color Song (I Lost My Love),“ in which she guns down her wayward lover, is downright transgressive. Shepard was never one to shy away from controversial topics, and her penchant for adult material sung from a strong woman’s point of view presaged the frankly sexual recordings of such singers as Tammy Wynette and Sammi Smith.

After Hawkshaw Hawkins died in ’63—the couple married in ’60 and had two sons together—Shepard, who later wed Roy Orbison guitarist Benny Birchfield, became more outspoken in real life as well. Among other things, she fought for a better union scale for pickers during the ’60s and pushed for a hard-country revival when CMA voters crowned pop singer Olivia Newton-John Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974.

As the decade wore on, some deejays, perhaps put off by Shepard’s increasingly in-your-face demeanor, quit playing her records, 45 of which had charted since the release of ”A Dear John Letter.“ After 1978, she recorded only sporadically, and for small labels, but she continued to book live dates and work the Opry, where, since Minnie Pearl’s passing in 1996, she has emerged as the show’s indisputable matriarch.

Shepard commented on her legacy, and that of Kitty Wells, Skeeter Davis, and the other pioneering country women of the ’50s, in an interview with the Scene last summer. ”I think that we opened an awful lot of doors for the girls who came after us. What we made the public realize was that women could have a voice in this industry. We weren’t just girl singers in a band. We were gonna be a force, come hell or high water.“ Indeed, listening today to Shepard wail ”Second Fiddle“ as Jerry Kennedy’s bluesy flatpicking blazes away behind her, it’s plain that she never intended to settle for being anything but the very best.

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