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Jean Shepard Discusses Hall of Fame Induction and Being a Pioneer for Women in Country Music

Jean Shepard
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Jean Shepard is a new member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, receiving the highest honor in country music. Ms. Shepard, now 77, broke through in 1953 with the No. 1 hit ‘A Dear John Letter,’ a duet with Ferlin Husky. Alongside Goldie Hill and The Davis Sisters, the Opry legend was one of the first female artists to have a No. 1 hit that year, and she is the only living artist from that year’s chart toppers, which included Hank Williams, Sr., Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves.

Taste of Country recently had the honor to visit with Shepard, a pioneer of the industry, to discuss her Hall of Fame induction and the days when she was told there was “not a market for ladies in country music.”

Take us through the Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony. Who presented you with your medallion, as part of your official induction?
The guy I gave his first job to, George Jones! I had seen him at Ferlin Husky’s funeral, and we was talking about it. Somebody said, ‘Who’s gonna give you your medallion?” I said, “I don’t know. I really haven’t made up my mind.” George was standing there, and he offered, so I took him up on it.

You were inducted alongside songwriter Bobby Braddock and Reba McEntire. Did you have a chance to talk with Reba at the ceremony?
Before the ceremony, not at the ceremony, because we were all too busy. But she’s very sweet, and she’s a very talented lady!

Reba praised you quite a bit for opening the doors for women in country music. Women were told they couldn’t sell records when you tried to get a deal.
We were told that by [Capitol Records producer] Ken Nelson. He told Hank Thompson, who was trying to get me on the label, “Hank, there’s not a market for ladies in country music.” Then we did ‘A Dear John Letter’ and sold 3 million copies. Then I said to him, “Do you still think there’s not a market for ladies in country music?”

What does it mean to you to be a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame?
Well, you’re alongside your peers and the people you have admired for years! There wasn’t many women in country music when I got into it. Kitty Wells was there, and a few other ladies. We had to kick doors open for all of ‘em, people like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. It means a lot. I don’t know how to say it … it gives you a little prestige or something.

There are several legends who should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Kenny Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys, Jack Greene, and Ronnie Milsap come to mind. Who do you think is overdue for induction into the Hall?
To me, you’re getting ahead of yourself. This is just my opinion, Kevin. I’ll tell you like I think it is. Kenny Rogers, NO. The Oak Ridge Boys, NO. Not now, maybe in about 8-10 years. But you speak of people like Jack Greene, the Wilburn Brothers, Leroy Van Dyke, Jimmy C. Newman, Skeeter Davis, Jim Ed Brown and the Browns, and Mac Wiseman. These are the people I think should be in there first, and I’m very vocal about it. I have nothing against Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys — there’s none greater!

One of your earliest hits was ‘A Dear John Letter’ with Ferlin Husky. How did your friendship, and the duet with Ferlin, come about?
I knew him in California. I would go to every show that I could go to. Then he showed up one day with this song, ‘A Dear John Letter.’ I had recorded one record for Capitol Records and it hadn’t done nothing. But we done the ‘Dear John’ record and it was an immediate hit, selling 3-4 million records. Back then it was hard to sell a million records, because only one out of 11 households had a record playing device.

You are known as a pioneer, who seemed to accomplish a lot of things ‘first’ in the business: You were the first female singer to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, the first female to sell one million copies in the post World War II era, you appeared in the first country network music show (‘The Ozark Jubilee’), and you were the first female to overdub your own voice on your recordings. What are you most proud of?
I think maybe helping knock the doors down for the ladies coming along after me, because it was just almost impossible for women to get a break in country music!

You were once married to Hawkshaw Hawkins, singer of ‘Lonesome 7-7203.’ Hawkshaw was one of the artists that was killed in the plane crash that took the life of Patsy Cline in 1963. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?
I was layin’ in bed. I had a 16-month-old son and I was eight months pregnant again. Then, about 10 or 11 o’clock, I had just laid down, my phone rang and it was one of Hawkshaw’s fan club representatives. She said, “What are you doin’?” I said, “Tying to get some sleep.” Then she said, “Oh my god, you haven’t heard!” I knew then that something was up. I was at home by myself. But within minutes, several of my friends were there.

You also had a big hit with ‘Slippin’ Away,’ a song written by Bill Anderson. You’ve remained friends with Bill through the years, appearing on television shows and touring together. What is Bill Anderson like behind the scenes?
He’s a good friend to me! A tremendous entertainer, and an underrated entertainer. We are just good friends. When he was a disc jockey, I was the first artist he interviewed. He kept talking and talking and talking, and I thought, “I gotta get out of this interview somehow.” Then I realized he said it was his first interview. Anyway, I bowed out gracefully — I said, “Bill I better let you go, and let you talk to some of the other artists.”

Who are some of your favorite singers in country music today?
I like the old Merle Haggard stuff, the old Buck Owens stuff. If you ain’t got a steal guitar or fiddle in your band, you don’t have a country band! I don’t like these screeching guitars and loud drums! Just keep it country and keep it plain. There’s nothing better than a good country song, like Merle Haggard’s ‘Silver Wings’ or Buck Owen’s ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here.’ I also like Vince Gill and Steve Wariner!

Watch Jean Shepard Sing ‘Slippin’ Away’

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