Jean Shepard, the hardcore country singer, Grand Ole Opry institution and ‘50s and ‘60s chart presence, has long been known for speaking her mind. Jean Shepard, the autobiographer, doesn’t disappoint in that regard either.
The Country Music Hall of Fame member’s new book Down Through the Years offers candid opinions and colorful stories aplenty.
There’s the one where a pre-fame, cash-strapped Buck Owens chased her car begging for session work. And the one where a well-lubricated Little Jimmy Dickens wouldn’t stop coming at her with sloppy come-ons until both her husband Benny Birchfield and a security guard stepped in. And the one where a woman burst out of the next motel room in her underwear, clutching Hank Snow’s toupee, and Snow gave chase in his boxers.
Shepard, 80, gets tickled on the phone retelling that last bit.
“I fell on the floor laughing when I saw them running down the hallway,” she says.
Lest there be any question, Shepard had no hesitation whatsoever about committing such episodes to the pages of her memoir. She felt like her stories had solid footing since it wasn’t like she was relying on hearsay. She was, after all, there to see most of this stuff go down.
Before Shepard gets around to describing her memories of classic country stars, she spends at least the first quarter of her book talking about what it was like to grow up in a dirt-poor, hard-working Okie family.
“Not ranching — sharecropping,” she specifies.
The reader is meant to understand that music had its place alongside — not above — the myriad, down-to-earth demands of Dust Bowl life.
“Home is where I learned to sing,” she writes, “right along with feeding chickens, tending cows, chopping weeds and working hard to survive.”
It was during those years that Shepard developed her sense of who and what country music was for — a prized reprieve for working folks. She’d come in at lunchtime and catch 15 minutes of Bob Wills on the radio, and after all of Saturday’s chores were done, her whole family would listen to the Opry.
As she so effectively puts it, “Country music songs are written for an old boy that’s been out working 10 hours a day, and it just tells the story of his life. … It tells it in a plain, very direct way.”
An Opry member since 1955, Shepard has often stumped for traditional country music and voiced her displeasure at what she’s seen as country-pop crossover compromises. She writes of several such instances, including a warning she received from her record label to cool it on the pop-skewering, as well as her financially disastrous involvement in the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers (ACE). The organization was dreamed up in 1974 at the home of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and meant to advocate for traditional country music stars during a time when crossover artists were winning high-profile country awards. It disbanded in 1981.
On the phone, Shepard wagers that her pop opposition may have hurt her in the industry even as it endeared her to her fans. Sure, she wanted to see her own songs be successful, but more than that, she worried that country’s working-class audience would get left behind — that the music would no longer speak directly to their lives.
Shepard’s account of her early performing and recording days is a reminder that her career grew out of the California country scene, where she sang lead and played upright bass three nights a week with high school friends in the Melody Ranch Girls. The book contains a black-and-white photo of them posing with instruments in satin snap shirts, cowboy scarves and slacks. When asked who they were modeling their look on, Shepard says she doesn’t remember. She is, however, perfectly clear on the fact that they each had to scrape together their own money to buy their stage outfits.
Even on nights she wasn’t playing, Shepard liked to show up to honky-tonks well before shows were scheduled to start so she could talk to the musicians — like Wills (with whom she became friends), Hank Thompson (with whom she’d duet), Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and many others. For years, she cut sides at Capitol’s studios in Los Angeles with Ken Nelson producing and Owens, Fuzzy Owen, Tommy Collins and other young architects of the Bakersfield sound providing her musical backing.
She became a widow and single mother in 1964 when her husband and fellow country star Hawkshaw Hawkins died in the same plane crash that took the lives of Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. That’s tenderly recounted, too, along with her annoyance that it’s so often been used as an excuse for people to pump her for memories of Cline.
Once the interview arrives at the most prominently-recurring theme in all of the writing about her — the dim prospects solo female country singers faced when she was starting out — Shepard lets out a hearty, knowing laugh. Williams and his band members were among the first to make light of her musical aspirations. But she got an earful more than once about girl singers belonging in supporting roles in guys’ bands.
With 1952’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Kitty Wells had already staked out her territory in the country field’s seemingly limited space for women. Though Shepard covered that signature song on a demo that convinced Nelson to sign her, she says now she wasn’t worried people would confuse her with the established star, thanks to the tough-minded confidence her mother had instilled in her. It didn’t hurt that Shepard had her own arresting, throaty and thoroughly country vocal attack, accented by the occasional yodel.
A lot of the vignettes in Down Through the Years bear out the notion that a country career was not for the faint-of-heart female singer. Shepard tells of taking it upon herself to mail her singles to radio DJs, along with handwritten notes, and to place ads in Billboard magazine promoting them.
“That wasn’t cheap,” she says in her snappy, straight-ahead way.
When it came to getting this autobiography published, it’s fortunate Shepard has never been one to shy away from a hefty undertaking. It took her 15 years to get it done, and even then, she had to work out nontraditional means of distribution with the help of Larry Black (host of the RFD-TV show Larry’s Country Diner) and Gus Arrendale (CEO of Spring Mountain Farms Chicken, for which she’s a spokesperson).
A 2011 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, Shepard tells a story that packs a plainspoken punch and well worth getting down on paper.
“I was a California ranch hand’s daughter, barely a year out of high school,” she writes in the first chapter, “and I had the first million-selling song by a woman in country music since before WWII.”