The original queen of country music blazed a trail for women performers.
Kitty Wells was 33 years old — and on the verge of quitting showbiz altogether to become a full-time wife and mother — before she became an overnight sensation.
One of the relatively few country music icons who could actually claim Nashville as a birthplace, she was born Ellen Muriel Deason on August 30, 1919, and learned to play the guitar at 14. She grew up listening to those old-time country sounds during weekly Grand Ole Opry broadcasts and made her own radio debut as a performer in 1936. The following year, she married Johnnie Wright, an up-and-coming country music artist who would achieve fame (alongside Jack Anglin) as half of the popular duo Johnnie & Jack. While his wife was performing as the “girl singer” in the duo’s shows, it was Wright who suggested that she use the stage name Kitty Wells (drawn from the title of a 19th-century folk song).
By 1952, however, she was ready to give up the name and her own chances for fame. Nothing much had come of the albums she had recorded for RCA Victor, and she repeatedly banged her head against the glass ceiling of what then passed for conventional wisdom in the music business: Women simply couldn’t sell records or draw concertgoers on their own.
Around this time, however, she was approached by a Decca Records executive to record “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a slightly risqué but instantly memorable tune that served as a kind of “answer song” to Hank Thompson’s No. 1 hit “The Wild Side of Life.”
In the original song, Thompson bemoans his wife’s cheating ways and accuses his wandering spouse of carousing in bars “where you wait to be anybody’s baby and forget the truest love you’ll ever know.” The answer song counters by claiming “too many married men think they’re still single” and have “caused many a good girl to go wrong.” And then, for good measure: “From the start, most every heart that’s ever broken was because there always was a man to blame.”
Dubious about the song’s commercial prospects and concerned about lyrics that seemed, by 1950s standards, a tad salacious, Wells more or less had to be talked into recording the song. She would later say she relented only because of the $125 union scale fee she would receive for the recording session. As she told a writer for the Nashville Scene weekly newspaper: “I wasn’t expecting it to make a hit. I just thought it was another song.”
But “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” turned out to be something much more than that.
Long before Loretta Lynn scandalized many of her fans with “The Pill” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and Miranda Lambert put the smack down on abusive good ol’ boys with “Gunpowder & Lead,” Wells, who passed away July 16, 2012, at age 92, sounded a proto-feminist note in a quietly defiant riposte to male chauvinism. To be sure, it was a song that struck many in 1950s America as envelope-pushing and borderline offensive. “The NBC radio network banned Ms. Wells’ record, deeming it ‘suggestive,’ and officials at the Grand Ole Opry would not at first let her perform it on their show,” recalled The New York Times writer Bill Friskics-Warren in his admiring obituary for the Nashville songbird. Eventually, however, the Opry decision-makers changed their tune, “in part because of the song’s popularity and Ms. Wells’ nonthreatening image.”
The latter, it should be noted, proved to be a key part of Wells’ enduring popularity throughout a performing and recording career that spanned nearly a half-century and earned her the title of the Queen of Country Music. “Ms. Wells sang of ‘Honky Tonk Angels,’ but no one would have ever mistaken her for one,” Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann write in their book Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800 – 2000. In a similar vein, Nolan Porterfield notes in a chapter of Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America that many other tunes Wells recorded (including “Release Me,” “Making Believe,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”) were “considered controversial at the time, but the combination of her steady, old-fashioned demeanor and impeccable family life ultimately overcame all objections.”
“Honky Tonk Angels” was a breakthrough smash hit, selling more than 800,000 copies during its initial release and making Wells the very first female vocalist to score a No. 1 single on the Billboard country chart. She also became the first female country singer to put out an LP of her own. She went on to chart 81 singles — 35 of them in the Top 10 — and was embraced as a trailblazing influence by artists as diverse as Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Barbara Mandrell, and Loretta Lynn. (On hearing of Wells’ passing, Lynn quickly tweeted to fans: “If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself.”)
Wells continued to be a popular concert attraction long after she stopped being a staple on the Billboard charts, appearing with her husband, who died last year, and their children for several years on road tours. (Married for more than 70 years, Wells and Wright performed together for the last time in 2000 during a New Year’s Eve concert at the Nashville Nightlife Theater.) In 1976, she became only the third woman to be inducted as a solo artist into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1985, she was honored with the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award. And in 1991, she became the first female country artist to receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
“I never thought about being a pioneer,” Wells told Country Weekly magazine in 2008. Still, she always remained proud of “Honky Tonk Angels” and its impact as a groundbreaking recording, “because it opened the door for a lot of the young girls who were coming around.”
Which means, of course, that they — and we — should be grateful that Kitty Wells stuck around in showbiz long enough to sing it in the first place.
From the December 2012 issue.