For my money, Jean Shepard (1933-2016) was the greatest female country singer of the 1950s... Musically, her records were uniformly solid right up through the late '60s, and she had the perfect "country" voice, combined with a sharp, acerbic wit and mature perspective. Shepard specialized in "heart songs" -- hard luck tales of love pining for love -- but she seldom played the same sort of whiny, emotional doormat roles as other "girl" singers of the era. Shepard's tunes tended to be morality lessons, but angry ones, as she pointed an accusing finger at unfaithful lovers and cautioned other young women not to fool around with married men. An Okie raised in Bakersfield, California, Shepard was discovered by Hank Thompson, who helped her get a contract with Capitol Records in the early 1950s. She entered the country pantheon around the same time that Kitty Wells had her smash hit with the proto-feminist anthem, "It Wasn't God Who made Honkytonk Angels," but while Wells receded into a more passive, demure feminine role, Shepard never retreated from her championing of women's equality. Her assertive, sometimes rather blunt approach is a clear role model for the stuff Loretta Lynn recorded in the '60s, although Shepard seldom took on overt novelty songs, like the ones Loretta specialized in. It's always kind of amazed me that such an uncompromised female viewpoint was given such latitude in the conservative atmosphere of the early Nashville scene, but I guess it's hard to hold down such undeniable talent. For the hard country fan, Jean Shepard's work is both a blessing and a revelation -- unfortunately, outside of a handful of excellent reissues, most of her records remain out of print... But it you like sweet, pure honkytonk, it's all worth looking for!
Jean Shepard "Honky-Tonk Heroine -- Classic Capitol Recordings: 1952-1964" (Country Music Foundation, 1995)
Stepping in to fill the decades-long dry spell in which Jean Shepard's best work remained out of print, the Country Music Foundation assembled this ripsnortin', rollicking collection of twenty-four of her hottest honkytonk songs, which remains the single best collection of her work to come out on CD in America. This collection is incredible -- it brings out the best of her hard-nosed honkytonk sensibility, with one kickass song after another. There are cheatin' songs and weepers like "Dear John," "Beautiful Lies" and "A Satisfied Mind," as well as thumping, upbeat hard country tunes such as "Twice The Lovin' (In Half The Time)" and "Sad Singin' And Slow Ridin'," performed with a forcefulness and fire that suggest an affinity for the rockabilly scene that was sizzling at the time that Shepard's career took off. On numerous songs, Shepard addresses the battle of the sexes, and on such definitive battle cries as "The Root Of All Evil (Is A Man)" and "Act Like A Married Man," she delivers her message with such power and authority you figure, that's it, game over: the gals win. One of her most striking songs, "Two Whoops And Holler," has Shepard denouncing the hypocritical sexual double standard that allows men to cheat and go out boozing, but condemns women who also want to have a little fun: "How come a man can fight and cuss and smoke and drink and chew/Step out on their wives and do the things they shouldn't do/But it's all right in the public's eye, they say he's just a man/But if a woman does one little thing, then she's not worth a ---" The hinted-at curse word alone ("damn!") was probably enough to raise a few eyebrows back when this one was recorded, but the song goes on to half-jokingly proposed a matriarchal revolution that would have made Andrea Dworkin proud. Although feminist themes run strong in Shepard's work, it's really the music that makes her so special: she was one of the best country singers of her generation, on equal footing to Carl Smith, George Jones, or anyone else you'd care to mention. This is still the only significant US reissue of her work out there... and it's well worth looking for (though now sadly out of print!) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Jean Shepard "The Melody Ranch Girl" (Bear Family, 1995)
I lust after this collection, 5-CD box set gathering the best of her Capitol years, that I suppose I'll be able to afford someday, when my ship comes in. Since the stellar CMF collection listed above is now out of print, this may be the only place to hear Shepard's classic hits, at least until someone else wises up and makes these fab songs available again. If you can pick this up, you should. It's vital, vivacious hardcore honkytonk and heartsong galore... Highly recommended!
Jean Shepard "A Satisfied Mind" (Castle, 1995)
This UK-issue best-of gathers material from both her Capitol and UA careers.
Jean Shepard "Songs Of A Love Affair/Heartaches And Tears" (EMI, 1999)
A generous, much-welcome twofer disc, combining two full albums, Songs Of A Love Affair from 1956 and 1962's Heartaches And Tears. A must-have reissue set!
Jean Shepard "This Has Been Your Life" (BACM, 2005)
Prime early works from one of the finest female country singers of the 1950s and '60s. Unlike most BACM releases, this does have some overlap with records that have come out on other labels. They're all great songs, though, classics like "Beautiful Lies," "Two Whoops And A Holler," "A Dear John Letter" and "Twice The Lovin' In Half The Time." There are also some great, more obscure songs, such as "Please Don't Divorce Me" and "I Didn't Know The Gun Was Loaded," which also make this a tasty, collectable treat. Besides, all those other CDs, including the big, fab Bear Family box set, are all out of print, which is criminal, really. So, hooray again for BACM bringing this stuff back to light.
Jean Shepard "Beautiful Lies: The Early Years" (Jasmine, 2009)
This single-disc set includes all the material from Shepard's 1956 debut album Songs Of A Love Affair, along with some of her best-known hits. Great stuff!
Jean Shepard "Songs Of A Love Affair" (Capitol, 1956)
Jean Shepard "Lonesome Love" (Capitol, 1959)
Jean Shepard "This Is Jean Shepard" (Capitol, 1959) (*)
(Reissued on vinyl by the Stetson label in the 1980s.)
Jean Shepard "Got You On My Mind" (Capitol, 1961) (*)
Jean Shepard "Heartaches And Tears" (Capitol, 1962) (*)
Jean Shepard "Lighthearted And Blue" (Capitol, 1964) (*)
Jean Shepard "It's A Man Every Time" (Capitol, 1965) (*)
Jean Shepard & Ray Pillow "I'll Take The Dog" (Capitol, 1966) (*)
Jean Shepard "Many Happy Hangovers" (Capitol, 1966) (*)
Jean Shepard "Heart, We Did All That We Could" (Capitol, 1967) (*)
Jean Shepard "Your Forevers Don't Last Very Long" (Capitol, 1967) (*)
Jean Shepard "Heart To Heart" (Capitol, 1968) (*)
Jean Shepard "A Real Good Woman" (Capitol, 1968) (*)
Jean Shepard "I'll Fly Away" (Capitol, 1969) (LP)
An all-gospel album.
Jean Shepard "Seven Lonely Days" (Capitol, 1969) (*)
Jean Shepard "The Best By Request" (Capitol, 1970) (*)
Jean Shepard "A Woman's Hand" (Capitol, 1970)
Jean Shepard "Here And Now" (Capitol, 1971) (*)
(Produced by Larry Butler)
A surprisingly strong album, with Shepard not merely adapting to the conventions of the contemporary "sunshine country" sound, but dominating the style... She rode the wave like the old pro she was! Features plenty of well-known songs that were hits for others -- Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times," Conway Twitty's "Hello Darlin'," "Leavin' On A Jet Plane," "Snowbird" -- which she sang as well as the originals, if not better in some cases. There are also some noteworthy off-the-radar songs here as well, such as the mildly raunchy "Look At Mine" and Jerry Chesnut's super-verbose country gospel saga, "The Wonders You Perform," wherein Jesus gets credit for his sublime wisdom for letting a newborn child die at birth, rather than live life with some (unspecified) ailment. Um. Anyway, this was a pretty good record, considering when it was made... Shepard never really lost her edge!
Jean Shepard "Just As Soon As I Get Over Loving You" (Capitol, 1971)
Jean Shepard "Just Like Walkin' In Sunshine" (Capitol, 1972)
Jean Shepard "Slippin' Away" (United Artists, 1973)
Jean Shepard "I'll Do Anything It Takes" (United Artists, 1974)
Jean Shepard "Poor Sweet Baby" (United Artists, 1975)
Jean Shepard "I'm A Believer" (United Artists, 1975)
Jean Shepard "The Best Of Jean Shepard" (Gusto/Power Pak, 1975) (LP)
The cover photo isn't very flattering, but this late-edition set of re-recorded oldies is pretty fun, and her voice still sounds fine. Unfortunately the backup musicians aren't credited, but whichever collection of Nashville studio pros they were, they really put some feeling into it, particularly on the uptempo tunes that are clustered on Side One, such as the zippy version of "Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar" that kicks off the album. Red Sovine pitches in on a duet version of "Dear John," a classic weeper that sets the tone for Side Two, which has more maudlin material, notably "Two Little Boys" and a nice version of "The Key's In The Mailbox." Personally, the longer I've been listening to every single country record ever made, the more I've come to appreciate the value of faux greatest-hit/re-recording albums like this one... It's cool to hear what these great artists could do, even after their party was over...
Jean Shepard "Mercy/Ain't Love Good" (United Artists, 1976)
Jean Shepard "The Best Of Jean Shepard" (Capitol, 1963) *
Jean Shepard "For The Good Times" (Capitol, 1975) *
Jean Shepard "Greatest Hits" (United Artists, 1976)
"Down Through The Years"
Written by Jean Shepard
(Country Family Reunion, 2014)
Shepard's autobiography, available through the Country Family Reunion website.
Hick Music Index