By Vernell Hackett
Not too long ago, I interviewed Grand Ole Opry member and ‘Country Music Hall of Famer’ Jean Shepard and actress and new country singer Lucy Hale.
It was an interesting reflection on where country music has been and where it is going.
Wikipedia calls Jean Shepard an American honky-tonk singer but Jean is so much more than that.
Her first hit in 1953, “A Dear John Letter,” with Ferlin Huskey, was a crossover hit.
So much for today’s artists thinking they are doing so great when crossing over into charts beyond country! She went on to have a number of hits, including “A Satisfied Mind,” “Slippin’ Away,” “Second Fiddle (to An Old Guitar),” “If Teardrops Were Silver” and “I’ll Take The Dog” with Ray Pillow.
The native of Pauls Valley, Oklahoma has recently released an autobiography, “Jean Shepard: Down Through The Years,” which takes music fans through her career via vignettes of her life and stories about the entertainers around her. The singer says she worked on the book for 15 years.
She covers the early years after that first hit, her marriage to Hawkshaw Hawkins and the tragedy of his death in the plane crash that took the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes. The stories continue right on up to the present, with Jean relating anecdotes that allow fans in to the glamorous and not so glamorous world of country music.
Jean has been outspoken throughout her life so fans can expect to find that throughout the book. She admits sometimes gets in trouble for that but adds, “I don’t care. That’s just me. People can take it or leave it.”
The singer is proud to be in the Hall of Fame but very vocal that she should have been there years before her 2012 induction. She says people misunderstand her when she says it is often forgotten that Hawkshaw was on the plane crash that killed Patsy and the others. She says people have sometimes thought she hated Patsy but she assures that is not true — she just resented that the press told the story of the crash as if she was the only person on the plane.
Despite the tragedy, Jean returned to her career as soon as she could. “I knew I had to make a living for my two young children. The higher ups of the Grand Ole Opry personally came and asked me to come back to the Grand Ole Opry, so they made it easy for me to come back.”
Jean, now 80, has now been a member of that institution for 59 years, and is currently the longest continuous standing member of the Opry. Jean doesn’t hesitate to say that the Opry means everything to her.
An adamant singer of traditional country music, Jean says she was given a lot of advice over the years about changing her style but she never took it. “I didn’t say good advice,” she says with a chuckle. “I was comfortable with what I was doing. Country music brought me here and I stuck with it.”
Jean continues to appear on the Grand Ole Opry as well as make personal appearances alone and with a tour called “The Grand Ladies of Country Music” along with fellow Opry members Jan Howard and Jeannie Seely.
One has to wonder if Lucy, who is one of the stars of ABC’s “Pretty Little Liars,” will still be performing at 80. I’m making that comparison because I interviewed these two women within hours of each other. The same could be said of any of the country artists today, or even if they would want to be performing at that age!
Lucy just released her debut country album “Road Between” and single, “You Sound Good To Me.” She maintains she has always loved country music, but the road of life took her into an acting career first. Now she’s getting to do music, which she hopes will give her a second career, one that will run parallel with acting.
“It was everything I wanted it to be, down to the flowers and the dress and the faces I saw in the audience and me crying. It was just what I imagined it would be. It was a moment I will cherish for a long time.”
“Maybe because I’m stubborn or too big of a dreamer, but I don’t think I’ll have to choose. I want to do both,” the 25-year old says. “It might take a lot of work and a lot of convincing but I’m very persistent. At the end of the day, music is it. If I had to describe myself in three words, music would be one of those words. But I think it will work out so I don’t have to choose.”
Lucy also reveres the Grand Ole Opry, recently making her debut there. She says when she got the call, she thought they had the wrong number.
“It was one of the top things on my bucket list,” the singer says. “I was very surprised they invited me this early (in her singing career). They were so gracious and so kind. I cried on stage. I tried so hard (not to) but Bill Anderson came out after I sang and started talking and I started crying.
Lucy has her heroes in country music, among them Shania Twain and Martina McBride. Although she knew she wanted to sing, that idea was definitely solidified when she heard Rascal Flatts for the first time. “It was like, ‘What is that melody? What are these harmonies? What is that sound?’ So I went out and got their self-titled album … and I listened to that album on repeat. If it wasn’t game over before, it was game over then.
“I love them, I still love them, and I have every album. They are partly responsible to my love of country music. But I’ve never seen them perform live. I was in Los Angeles and they were performing in a small intimate venue and I had to film. I literally cried. So that’s on my bucket list, to go see Rascal Flatts.”
She may not have met the guys in Rascal Flatts, but she did have the opportunity to meet Martina while she was recording at Blackbird Studio in Nashville. Martina’s husband, John, owns Blackbird.
“I met John and their little girls because they are a fan of the show and John had asked if I would mind meeting them. I recorded about half of the album at Blackbird, and I think one of the last days I was there John came in and said Martina was recording background vocals for her album and would I want to meet her.
“I had to collect myself … Martina’s ‘Broken Ring’ also got me to loving country music. After I heard it I started doing it at singing competitions. She is everything. So it’s kind of a big deal to meet her. I walked in and she gave me a big hug and said ‘Thank you for being so nice to my daughters.’ It was like the Opry experience. I would have been disappointed if she hadn’t been everything I wanted her to would be. She totally was and it is so cool to see someone who has had that much success and is still so down to earth.”
“Music City Roots” Has New Home
There is a very cool show, “Music City Roots,” that presents a varied scope of artists every week in Nashville. It has been around for four years and 200-plus performances at the Loveless Barn west of town. In the past few weeks the show, which sells out just about every week, moved to The Factory in Franklin, where it is experiencing new opportunities in a complex that is trying to make a name for itself as an arts colony of sorts.
Craig Havighurst, who says to just call him the Show Journalist, says The Factory reached out to the show about the move and it made sense to take the next step in the show’s development. Although the new venue, Liberty Hall, is bigger it is still an intimate place for the artists to perform. It also will allow space for Roots Radio, the concert series’ free streaming service available via the web or smartphone app. There is also a new broadcast facility that will allow new live and specialty programming. Together the two will allow more people to hear the show even if they can’t get to Nashville for performances.
“Loveless Café was a great place to be born and grow but this is a great move,” says Craig. “Now that we have the facility, we will start to build Roots Radio beyond the thousand or so songs we now stream. We will do shows around themes and will add long-form interviews.”
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, along with Humming House and songwriter Verlon Thompson, debuted the new venue to a sold-out house on July 9. Emmy and Rodney performed two sets together, drawing from the album the two of them did last year, “Old Yellow Moon” as well as from their own solo careers.
“It is an honor to be on this show in this new space,” Emmy told the audience. The evening supported the singer’s animal rescue effort, Bonaparte’s Retreat Dog Rescue. Emmy said that when she and Rodney are on tour together they travel with three dogs. She also revealed that she and Rodney are recording a second duet album.
“Music City Roots” has had a host of great talent over its four years, including Alejandro Escovedo, the Sweetback Sisters, Suzy Boggus, the Farewell Drifters, Marty Stuart, John Oates, Rhonda Vincent and The Rage, Hayes Carll, Riders in the Sky, Leon Russell, Pokey LaFarge, Bobby Bare and John McEuen along with sons Nathan and Jonathan.
Upcoming shows, for those visiting in Nashville later this year, include Guitar Night on August 27, which will feature Steve Wariner, Bryan Sutton, Rory Hoffman and Megan McCormick. For more information on shows and guests check out the show’s website at www.musiccityroots.com.
Songwriters are some of my favorite people. I’ll forever be grateful to Bobby Bare for telling me “You need to get to know the songwriters in this town because they are the ones who know how to have fun.” They are also the creative men and women behind the songs we all sing along to, the songs that bring back so many memories of events in our lives, and the songs that propel our favorite singers into the spotlight.
Verlon Thompson, who was on the debut “Music City Roots Show” at the Factory, is a great example of perseverance and not really knowing what he was getting himself into when he moved to Nashville from Oklahoma. He moved to Music City to be a staff writer but supplemented his income as a landscape artist while waiting for his break.
The songwriter loved the rainy days because he could then take off from working in landscape art and take his musical art to publishers on Music Row. Thankfully it wasn’t long before his potential was recognized and he signed with Coalminer Music, Loretta Lynn’s publishing company.
“Loretta didn’t like the songs I brought in the first time but she told me I had an open door to come back,” Verlon relates. He did and it paid off with the contract and consequent cuts.
“I always loved the storytellers like guy Clark and Roger Miller,” Verlon says. That is evident in the songs he has had recorded, among them Dierks Bentley’s “Bad Angel” (with Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson), “Boats to Build,” Jimmy Buffett with Alan Jackson, “Cross My Broken Heart,” Suzy Bogguss, and “The First Step,” Tracy Byrd.
Verlon, fiddle player Sue Cunningham and photographer Frank Serio have released an album of songs from their theatrical work “Find Your Angel.” The presentation is described as “Fiction based on fact,” and is the story of a southern belle who has it all until it is torn apart by the Civil War. The show combines music, photographs and recitation to tell her story.
Vernell Hackett is a Nashville-based journalist who writes about music and the arts, travel and interesting people. She follows Emmylou’s philosophy of helping the four legged creatures, as she has five cats and a dog that are rescues, plus two kittens that she is fostering until they find their new home.
John Montgomery III is a photographer who has documented many major events in the music industry in Nashville since he moved there in the early 1990’s. After a brief break in the Islands, he has returned to Nashville to continue that documentation.