I guess I knew Jean Shepard longer than I’ve known any other country music artist and performer.
From the day of our first infamous radio interview backstage in Athens, Georgia, in 1956, to the night in 2015 when I introduced her on the occasion of her 60th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, there wasn’t a time when Jean wasn’t a part of my life.
A big part.
When I started a syndicated television show in 1965, Jean was my first featured female vocalist. When she was looking for a song with which to begin a new recording career at United Artists Records, she chose one of mine called “Slippin’ Away.” Later, when she was looking for an idea from which to build a “concept” album around, she chose to honor me with a 12-song collection of nothing but songs I had written….songs that have never been sung any better than Jean Shepard sang them.
When we started the Country’s Family Reunion television series almost twenty years ago, I told Larry Black we needed Jean’s music and her humor in order to make our programs complete. He agreed, and Jean (you didn’t dare call her “Jeanie!”) was there nearly every time we opened the doors.
And, oh, the tours we did together. I tell these young artists today as they fly around on their private jet planes and dress inside their million dollar busses, that they should have been around in the days when we worked the old package shows inside the new sports arenas that were springing up around the country back in the sixties.
“Before the shows, we all dressed in the hockey players’ or the basketball players’ locker rooms with absolutely no privacy,” I’d say. “And you knew it was getting close to show time when Jean Shepard’s voice would echo across the room, ‘Turn your heads, boys, I’m a-changin’ clothes. And if you don’t turn your heads, I’m changin’ ’em anyway!”
Jean was talented, funny, opinionated, passionate, and genuine to the core. You might not always agree with her, but you always knew where she stood. She loved traditional country music, and didn’t have a lot of patience with those who didn’t. She was outspoken to a fault at times, and that might have delayed her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame for awhile. But her sheer talent was undeniable…she, along with Kitty Wells, pioneered country music for women…and there finally came a time in 2011 when the voters couldn’t deny her contributions any longer. I never saw anyone more thrilled than Jean Shepard was the night she was finally made a Hall of Fame member.
Upon hearing of her passing on Sunday, a friend wrote me and said, “God can rest a little easier now…knowing one of His unique ‘originals’ has finally come home. ‘Cause we all know he threw away the mold after making HER!”
Rest in peace my dear and special friend, Jean. Country music and those of us in it are richer by far simply because you walked among us.