Ollie Imogene “Jean” Shepard was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for over 60 years, longer than any other artist. She was a country music pioneer–one of the first women to perform solo, to release a concept album (Songs of a Love Affair, 1959) and was only the third woman to join the Opry.
Born in Oklahoma, Shepard (November 21, 1933-September 25, 2016) grew up in California, where she formed The Melody Ranch Girls. While performing in Bakersfield, she was seen by country star Hank Thompson, who used his clout at Capitol Records to get her a record contract. “A Dear John Letter,” a 1953 duet with Ferlin Husky, went to #1 on the country charts and crossed over into the Top 10 on the pop charts.
While she had a number of charted hits in the 50s and 60s, she never made it back to the top. Country veered in a more cosmopolitan direction, and Shepard doggedly stuck to her traditional country roots. When Olivia Newton-John won best female country vocalist in 1974, the Association of Country Entertainers was formed and Shepard became its president. The New York Times quoted an interview she gave the Edmonton Journal: “She’s a very sweet lady, I’m sure. But what she sang wasn’t country music.”