U.S. country singer Jean Shepard dead at 82

Sun Sep 25, 2016 7:52pm EDT
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(Reuters) - Jean Shepard, who played a pioneering role for women in country music and was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame, died on Sunday at age 82, the Nashville Tennessean reported.

"Today is one of the hardest days of my life. Mom has been called home this morning and is now at peace,” the singer’s son Hawkshaw Hawkins Jr. said in a statement quoted by Billboard Magazine. The magazine said Shepard entered hospice care last week after a long illness.

Representatives for Shepard did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither the Tennessean nor Billboard listed a cause of death or said where she died.

Shepard, who had a No. 1 in 1953 with the song "Dear John Letter," performed into her final years and published a memoir, "Down Through the Years," the newspaper said. She was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville's famous country music weekly program, in 1955, at 22, the Tennessean said. At her death, she was its longest-serving member.

When the joined the Grand Ole Opry, the only other female members were Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl, the newspaper said. In 1960, she married singer Hawkshaw Hawkins. In March 1963, when Shepard was 8 months pregnant with their second child, Hawkins died in the plane crash that killed country singer Patsy Cline.

She remarried twice, including in 1968 to her husband of almost 50 years, musician Benny Birchfield, the newspaper said.

Shepard was accepted as a lead touring and recording artist at a time when few women were able to do so, clearing the way for such performers as Loretta Lynn.

Born Ollie Imogene Shepard in Oklahoma in 1933, her family moved to California when she was 11, settling in the San Joaquin Valley farming community of Visalia.

She was a staunch supporter of traditional country music, releasing her last single in 1981 and dismissing modern pop-inflected country music as not "genuine," the newspaper said.   Continued...