Jean Shepard, a pioneering female country singer with roots in Visalia and a longtime member of the Grand Ole Opry, died Sunday in Nashville, Tenn. She was 82.
She was a regular for 60 years at the Grand Ole Opry, a radio show from the 1920s that grew into an American institution, making her the longest-performing female member at the Opry.
In 2011, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Shepard was born in Pauls Valley, Okla., in 1933 and moved with her family to Visalia in the 1940s.
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“They were part of the Dust Bowl migration,” said Visalia historian Terry Ommen.
Ommen said he had a chance meeting with Shepard’s brother Hoyt five years ago and interviewed him about his famous sister.
Her brother said that while he was growing up in Visalia, the entire family would pick peaches to make money, and each family member had a quota.
“ ‘You know, Jean never had to pick that many,’ ” Ommen said, quoting her brother. The reason: “She’d sing while picking, and people would bring her peaches in exchange for a song,” Ommen said.
Ommen was invited to meet Shepard backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2011.
She’d sing while picking (peaches) and people would bring her peaches in exchange for a song.
Terry Ommen, Visalia historian
By that year, Shepard was well-known in the industry as an outspoken defender of traditional country music. The topic came up at the meeting, and Ommen remembers Shepard stating firmly “it’s not like this so-called country today.”
“She liked that old country sound,” Ommen said.
Her first band, the Melody Ranch Girls, was formed in Visalia in 1947.
Phil Kneeland of Visalia, 76, said Shepard’s family lived next door when he was a boy. He was friends with her younger brother Gerald.
“One day we went out to play,” Kneeland said. “Gerald said his sister was going to be signed by a recording company. He was very impressed.”
In 1952, she signed a contract with Capitol Records.
Within a year, Shepard recorded a duet with Ferlin Husky, “A Dear John Letter,” that went to No. 1.
An article in The Fresno Bee from the time reported that she was preparing to go on tour with Husky and would be performing with him at the Grand Ole Opry on Sept. 19, 1953.
By 1955, she was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in an era when solo act female country singers were few.
In 1960, she married singer Hawkshaw Hawkins, a fellow Opry member, and was eight months pregnant with his son when he died in 1963 in the plane crash that killed Patsy Cline.
In her long career, Shepard recorded hits such as “Forgive Me, John” (also with 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,” according to CMT News.
Her success took her away from Visalia, but in 1993 she and several Grand Ole Opry stars performed traditional country music in Fresno to an appreciative crowd, with fans getting autographs and hugs from the stars, The Bee reported.
“We won’t run off in no bus and hide from y’all,” Shepard told the crowd.
Funeral services will be open to the public and will be held Friday in Hendersonville, Tenn.