Ollie Imogene (Jean Shepard) Birchfield, age 82 of Hendersonville passed away early Sunday Morning.
She was born on November 21, 1933 in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. She was one of ten children that helped on the family farm. When she was just eleven years old her family moved to Visalia, California, about 100 miles north of Bakersfield.
From an early age, she started singing with her siblings at church on Sunday. It became such a passion that during high school she and four other young ladies formed a band called “The Melody Ranch Girls” playing gigs around town.
In 1952, she had the opportunity to sing with Hank Thompson during a concert that was near her home. He was so impressed that several months later after hard work on both their parts Ms. Shepard was signed to Capitol Records.
Ms. Shepard had a rough start with her singing career, with there being only a few solo female artists at that time. It wasn’t until she recorded a duet with Ferlin Husky, “A Dear John Letter” that things started to change. The song would spend six weeks atop the country charts and hit No. 4 on the pop charts. It was the only No. 1 song of her career however it sold more than one million records.
She teamed up with Ferlin Husky and would begin learning many invaluable lessons about the country music industry. In November of 1955, at the age of just 22 she was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. She would join Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl being the only women at the time that were Members of the Grand Ole Opry.
She met her first husband, Hawkshaw Hawkins, during her time on the “Ozark Jubilee” program. They started touring together and in November of 1960 married on the stage of a Wichita, Kansas auditorium. The couple welcomed their first son, Don Robins in 1963 and where expecting their second child the late spring of 1963 when Hawkins plane crashed and left her eight months pregnant and raising a toddler. Just weeks after the death of Hawkins, she gave birth to Harold Franklin Hawkins II.
In 1968 she married musician Benny Birchfield and would welcome her third son, Corey Birchfield just a year later.
In the early 1970s, she made the move from Capitol Records to United Artists, where she remained until 1977. She released her last single “Too Many Rivers,” in 1981 and was known throughout her career as an outspoken opponent of pop-country music.
Ms. Shepard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011. At the press conference announcing that year's inductees, Hall of Famer Brenda Lee said that this induction was “way too long in coming. She busted down the doors.”
On Nov. 21, 2015, the Grand Ole Opry celebrated Jean Shepard’s 60th anniversary as a member; she was the only female member to have reached the six-decade mark. Shepard is the longest-running member of the Opry at this time, and had appeared on the show into her 80s. She was also a published author, having released her engaging memoir, “Down Through the Years,” in 2014.
Shepard will forever be remembered as a pioneer for women in country music. Her 1956 LP, “Songs of a Love Affair,” featuring songs about a marriage broken up by adultery, was one of the genre's first concept albums, and other gutsy, forthright recordings such as “Act Like a Married Man” helped to pave the way for artists like Loretta Lynn.
Shepard leaves behind Benny Birchfield, her devoted husband of nearly 50 years, three sons and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A celebration of her life will be held Friday September 30, 2016 at 1pm in the chapel of Hendersonville Funeral Home. Interment will follow in Hendersonville Memory Gardens. Visitation will be held on Thursday September 29, 2016 from 12pm-8pm and on Friday September 30, 2016 from 11am-1pm at Hendersonville Funeral Home 353 E Main St Hendersonville, TN 37075 615-824-3855 hendersonvillefh.com