Jean Shepard, one of the first women to find success in country music as a solo act, died Sunday at age 82. Shepard was a feisty, straight-shooting singer who created a career in an industry where she had few female role models.
When Shepard was first driving from town to town playing honky-tonk bars, there were only a couple of other women in country music — Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl among them — who were putting out music by themselves. More often, the women of country were performing with their husbands or referred to as “girl singers” with bands. In that context, Shepard stood out and even sounded defiant.
Shepard said that when she started out, she struggled to get a record deal because of her gender. But she’d sometimes joke about the discrimination. “I don’t like to hear women say I can do anything a man can do,” she quipped in a 1983 interview on The Nashville Network. “My husband can lift 200 pounds of horse feed, and I can’t do that.”
In addition to helping pave the way for country stars like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, Shepard had her own top 10 hits — most of them about love from a woman’s point of view. In her song “Second Fiddle (To An Old Guitar),” she sings about a man who looks at his guitar with a love he never shows her: “This love affair of yours has gone too far/ And I’m tired of playing second fiddle to an old guitar.”
Shepard was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and she performed there until last year. But she didn’t get voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2011, and many saw the honor as overdue. At the award ceremony, she spoke about the start of her career as a woman in country music. “As you know, there wasn’t none of us,” she said. “But I was happy to do my part. I hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese.”