Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard is in a reflective mood these days, and much of that stems from releasing her long-awaited autobiography, "Down Through The Years." She admitted to Billboard that it has been a work in progress – for a while. “I’ve been working on it for at least fifteen years. At first, I didn’t think I needed to write a book. People would keep asking me if I had started that book yet, so I guess it was time.”
The book is an honest recollection of many of her career and life. She told Billboard that she approached the book in her “tell it like it is” manner, telling stories about her friendships with many stars, such as Hank Williams, Jr. and Charlie Louvin. “I did that. If they can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” she said with a laugh.
She begins the book on a nostalgic note, talking about her growing up years in Oklahoma and then California with her parents, brothers and sisters. “There was always somebody into something, but it was a good life. We had a few pitfalls here and there, but we overcome them.”
Shepard started playing music as a teenager, and signed with Capitol in 1952. The next year, she had a hit on her hands with “A Dear John Letter,” a duet with Ferlin Husky. But, before she could tour to promote her career, there was one detail that needed to be taken care of – that resulted in Husky becoming her legal guardian. “When ‘A Dear John Letter’ hit, I couldn’t leave the state because I was a minor. You had to be twenty-one in those days. So, my daddy signed a release for Ferlin to be my guardian. He was very good to me, but my daddy would have killed him if he hadn’t been,” she reflected.
Shepard recollects how she found out that “A Dear John Letter” had topped the Billboard charts. “Buck Owens was in the car with us, and we was going from Bakersfield to LA to cut another session. The guys in the car were betting where the record was going to be on the charts. I didn’t know there was such a thing as Billboard. We stopped and picked up a Billboard, and Buck looked at it and threw it in the back seat, looked at me, and said ‘How does it feel to have a number one record?” I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was a thrill – totally unexpected.”
Shepard had to work extra hard to develop her career, as female vocalists were not in vogue in the format at that point, with only Kitty Wells being a dominant force before her. She smiles when she remembers one of her fellow artists’ remarks about her chances of hitting it big. “I used to go out to the shows in California and see all the entertainers go by. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Hank Williams came through. He said ‘There ain’t many women in country music.’ I said ‘I know sir, I’m fixin’ to change that.’
And, she did just that. Shepard placed forty-five hits on the singles chart between 1953 and 1978, including her signature hit, “Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar.” from 1964. She discusses her marriages – which include a tragically short union with Hawkshaw Hawkins – who died in a 1963 plane crash returning from Kansas City- and her forty-five year marriage to Benny Birchfield. She also laments that the business is a lot different now than it used to be, and that goes far beyond the music. “We used to have a lot of characters at the Grand Ole Opry – Lonzo & Oscar, Stringbean, Grandpa Jones – they were characters. I miss that camaraderie with those wonderful people. I loved everyone of them.” One of those characters was Jimmy C. Newman, who passed away last Saturday. Shepard said he would be missed. “I cried most of the day. He was a wonderful man, and I loved him. You could hear that ‘A-eee’ and you knew he was around. He was a great artist.”
Down Through The Years is available through www.CFRVideos.com