Sunday, September 25, 2016

Jean Shepard: 1933-2016

The news broke a couple of hours ago of the death of Jean Shepard at the age of 82 due to Parkinson's Disease. If you're not familiar at all with her music/career then seek out Amazon or YouTube. In some circles of country music she became known as the Queen of Honky Tonk Music and some referred to her as The Honky Tonk Heroine (which, incidentally, became the name of a retrospective collection of her Capitol Records recordings in 1995). Discovered by Hank Thompson (himself a legendary country music artist), Shepard released her first single in 1953 titled "Crying Steel Guitar Waltz". The title alone should tell anyone reading that she preferred country music in it's most basic, purest form and that what became known as traditional country music in the '90s and beyond was labeled Honky Tonk in the '40s and '50s.

She found early success as a duet partner with Ferlin Husky in 1953 on "A Dear John Letter", a massive #1 country hit and a Top-10 pop crossover hit. They followed it up with "Forgive Me, John", and that became a Top-10 country hit and a Top-30 pop hit. Having been born in November of 1933, Shepard was still a teenager at the time of her first national success. In the '40s she had been a member of the Melody Ranch Girls, a group described as an all-girl band, formed in 1948. A 1996 box set from Bear Family, The Melody Ranch Girl, is a must-have if you happen to be a hardcore fan.

The impact year in the earlier part of Jean Shepard's career happened to be 1955. This is the year in which she became noticed for her solo recordings. She had issued 6 solo recordings during a 2 year span (1953-1955). As mentioned earlier her first solo recording was "Crying Steel Guitar Waltz" but 1953 was dominated by her 2 duet recordings with Ferlin Husky. In fact, none of the 6 solo recordings Capitol issued on Shepard made the national charts. The commercial turning point came in 1955...and the release of her version of "A Satisfied Mind". This is the perfect opportunity to explain some things about country music recordings of the era. In the '40s, '50s, and even into the early '60s it wasn't uncommon for country artists to record and release the same song in the same year. This kind of thing wouldn't be tolerated in today's music climate and is frowned upon by music critics and consumers largely because fans have come to feel that songs belong to only one singer or one group and that nobody else should attempt to record something that another singer has recorded. I don't share that opinion but millions of people do...

"A Satisfied Mind", in 1955, became a smash hit for three different country music artists in 1955. The biggest hit came from Porter Wagoner and his version hit #1; Red and Betty Foley took the song to #3; and Jean Shepard took the song to #4. The b-side, "Take Possession", charted at #13. Shepard's follow-up, "Beautiful Lies", also hit #4 and it's b-side, "I Thought of You", hit #10. In addition to her commercial impact that year she also became a performer on the Ozark Jubilee. The increased visibility enabled her to become one of the very few female country music performers on national television. She appeared on the series for several seasons.

Ironically, after having 4 consecutive Top-10 country hits in 1955, it would be 8 more single releases before she returned to the charts. She hit 2 more times (once late in 1958 and again early in 1959) but then entered another long string of non-charted releases. This non-chart activity can be traced to the choice of material. Her love of traditional country music at it's most purest didn't earn a lot of praise from the critics, DJ's, and fans of the style of country music being pushed in the late '50s and early '60s...that style being labeled The Nashville Sound. None of the single releases from mid 1959 through 1963 reached the charts. As I like to point out, though, a charted single means a song has become a commercial success but only because it's been played on radio...if a song isn't being played on radio then it obviously runs the risk of not being discovered by record buyers and therefore it isn't going to have the chance of becoming a "commercial hit". In other words don't let chart inactivity fool you into the belief that a recording "must not be good" if it doesn't make the charts".

The commercial fortunes turned around in Shepard's career in 1964 in a big time way. She released one of her signature songs in "Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar" and this recording hit the Top-10. This set in motion a string of single releases that consistently placed in the Top-50 of the country music charts (many of them peaking in the Top-20). By far the most commercially successful of her career is the 1964-1974 decade. She and Ray Pillow released a couple of hit duet recordings in 1966: "I'll Take the Dog" and "Mister Do-It Yourself".

Some of the songs she performed at the Opry on many weekends happened to come from the 1964-1974 time period: "Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar", "Slippin' Away", "Seven Lonely Days", and "The Tips of My Fingers". In addition to those songs she could also be seen/heard performing "A Satisfied Mind", "Under Your Spell Again", and I heard her perform "Twice the Lovin' In Half the Time" at least once on the Opry, if I remember correctly, but the songs I previously mentioned are the ones she performed much more regularly.

She had become a member of the Grand Ole Opry in November 1955. This is even more notable because she became the first female member of the Opry (in November 2015) to reach 60 years of membership. I'd say she appeared regularly at the Opry for at least 58 of those 60 years...slightly decreasing her appearances due to health reasons...but she did return to celebrate her 60th anniversary as an Opry member and then she officially retired.

In 2011 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame some 58 years after having had her first success. A long overdue election to say the least but, at least, she was around to enjoy the honor.

Jean Shepard: November 21, 1933 - September 25, 2016

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