Feisty Jean was true to her tradition

Grand Old Opry star Jean Shepard
Grand Old Opry star Jean Shepard

Female country singing stars in Nashville have always been a tough breed. They have had to be in a music sector that is conservative and stridently male-dominated.

Grand Ole Opry star JEAN SHEPARD, who sadly died in Nashville on Sunday aged 82, was one such lady, fiercely independent and, outskpokenly, a defender of traditional country music.

Oklahoma-born Jean (real name Ollie Imogene Shepard) was from an ‘Okie’ Scots-Irish family who moved to California in the dust bowl depression years of the 1930s. She formed her first band the Melody Ranch Girls in 1947 and, by 1952, she had a contract with Capitol Records. In 1953, she had her first and only No 1 single A Dear John Letter, a duet with Ferlin Husky that tapped into the emotions of US servicemen in the Korean War then winding down.

Jean, with a strong and assertive nasal-twang voice and a stubborn attitude to match, continued to rise in Nashville with Top 5 and 10 hits as Forgive Me John (also with Ferlin Husky), A Satisfied Mind, Beautiful Lies, I Thought of You, Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar), I’ll Take the Dog (with Ray Pillow), If Teardrops Were Silver, Then He Touched Me, and Slippin’ Away.

She continued to chart singles every year through to 1978 and in 2005 she was the first Grand Ole Opry member to reach a 50-year milestone. She joined the Opry in 1955 and was a member until her death.

In 1960, Jean married fellow Opry star Hawkshaw Hawkins. Sadly, she was eight months pregnant with his son when Hawkins died in the March 1963 plane crash that also killed Patsy Cline and another country star Cowboy Copas.

Outspoken and feisty, Jean belonged to the Association of Country Entertainers, a group of leading Nashville singers formed in 1974, after Australian pop star Olivia Newton-John won the female Country Music Association vocalist of the year award. Their aim was to defend and promote traditional country music as a commercial art form. But Jean said some Association members, including George Jones and Tammy Wynette, lacked her crusading ardor and either drifted away or were pressured to leave.

Over the years, Jean remained a strong proponent of undiluted, hard honky tonk sounds on stage, in recordings and on the air. In 2011, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

* Prolific songwriter of classic country numbers JOHN D. LOUDERMILK has also passed away in Tennessee, aged 82.

The North Carolina man began his musical journey singing in church and later ran his own radio show. He first realised his gift for songwriting in 1955 when a poem he had written A Rose and a Baby Ruth reached the then up-and-coming George Hamilton IV, who turned it into a Top 10 pop hit in 1956. George 1V also recorded Loudermilk-penned classics - Abilene and Break My Mind.

Loudermilk was a cousin of famed country duo Louvin Brothers (Ira and Charlie), whose original family name was Loudermilk. Opry member Stonewall Jackson had his first No 1 with Waterloo as Loudermilk moved between country and pop.

John achieved particular success with Tobacco Road, a song recorded by a diverse set of artists, and Break My Mind, covered by Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt and Roy Orbison.

Loudermilk’s You Can Tell Me Goodbye was a No 1 hit for Eddy Arnold, while Ernie Ashworth had a chart-topper with John’s Talk Back Trembling Lips.