100 Greatest Women, #9: Kitty Wells

100 Greatest Women

#9

Kitty Wells

She was called the Queen of Country Music, the genre’s first major female solo star. In the fifties and early sixties, her string of hits were unprecedented for a female artist, as she began to prove the industry adage wrong: women could indeed sell records just like the men.

She was born Muriel Deason in Nashville, and her father taught her guitar when she was still quite young. By her teen years, she sang with her siblings as The Deason Sisters on a local radio station. When Muriel married Johnnie Wright at the age of eighteen, the newly married couple performed with Muriel’s sister Louise. Soon, Wright met Jack Anglin, who married Louise and joined the band. Around this time, Wright chose a stage name for Muriel from the old folk ballad “I’m A-Goin’ to Marry Kitty Wells.” The four performed as the Tennessee Hillbillies.

Anglin was drafted into the Army in 1942, so Johnny and Kitty performed as a duo until Jack returned and partnered with Wright as Johnny & Jack. Kitty Wells sang backup when Johnnie & Jack performed on Louisiana Hayride. Her own talent was noticed by RCA Records, who signed her in 1949 and released a series of singles, including “Don’t Wait For the Last Minute to Pray” and “Death at the Bar.” The songs didn’t chart, and since the label didn’t want to invest any more money in a female artist, she was dropped in 1950.

Wells reemerged as a solo artist in 1952, when Decca executive Paul Cohen approached her to record an answer song to the huge Hank Thompson hit “The Wild Side of Life.” It was common practice in the day for artists to record songs that responded, or answered, to other hit songs. This particular answer song, however, was anything but ordinary. Thompson’s hit had sung about a honky tonk angel who left him to return to her wild life ways. Wells’ response, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, rejected Thompson’s premise that God created such women, and asserted that “from the start most every heart that’s ever broken was because there always was a man to blame.”

The song was a smash, spending six weeks at #1, but it was so controversial that Wells wasn’t allowed to perform it on the Opry for a time. The song sold nearly a million copies, and started a hit run for Wells that rivaled those of the top male acts of her time. From her 1952 breakthrough through the end of the decade, she would be the only female artist to regularly receive country radio airplay, with a handful of other women like Goldie Hill and Jean Shepard occasionally joining her, but never having the consistent success she enjoyed.

She continued to record answer songs, scoring a hit with “Paying for Your Back Street Affair.” Her duets with Red Foley were quite popular, including the #1 hit “One By One” in 1954. Thought it missed the top spot, her hit “Makin’ Believe” became a country standard, revived by Emmylou Harris two decades later. She also referenced pop culture in a clever way, with her hit “Mommy For a Day” a takeoff of the popular television show Queen for a Day.

Wells also found success as a writer, earning a BMI award for her 1959 hit “Amigo Guitar.” Her hits collection Kitty Wells’ Country Hit Parade was the first major full-length LP by a female country artist. When the Nashville Sound gained traction in the early sixties, she teamed up with Owen Bradley and softened her traditional sound, earning another chart-topper in 1961 with “Heartbreak USA.” By that time, she’d been a major chart presence for a decade, and though the hits became fewer as the sixties progressed, she remained a major concert draw.

Wells continued to record throughout the seventies, and in 1976 she was the second female country singer to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, three years after Patsy Cline was the first. The ACM followed suit by giving her the Pioneer Award in 1985. In 1991, she was the first female country artist in history (and only the third country artist overall) to be honored with Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The iconic female artists that would emerge in the wake of Wells’ breakthrough success have tended to overshadow Wells herself, despite the fact that she was a tremendous influence on all of them. However, Wells always remained a top draw among country fans, until she retired from public performances in 2000. Now 88, Wells is the oldest living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and remains the Queen of Country Music, a title she’s held without dispute for five decades.

Kitty Wells

Essential Singles

  • “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” 1952
  • “One By One” (with Red Foley), 1954
  • “Makin’ Believe,” 1955
  • “Searching (For Someone Like You),” 1956
  • “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” 1958
  • “Mommy For a Day,” 1959
  • “Amigo’s Guitar,” 1959
  • “Heartbreak USA,” 1961

Essential Albums

  • Winner of Your Heart, 1956
  • Dust on the Bible, 1959
  • Kitty’s Choice, 1960
  • Seasons of My Heart, 1960
  • Lonesome, Sad, and Blue, 1965

Industry Awards

  • ACM Pioneer Award, 1985
  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 1976
  • Grammy: Lifetime Achievement Award, 1991

==> #8. Trisha Yearwood

<== #10. Wynonna (The Judds)

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13 Comments

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13 Responses to 100 Greatest Women, #9: Kitty Wells

  1. I’m thrilled that you ranked her this high. Kudos.

  2. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    Kitty Wells deserves indeed to be in the Top 10, as one could make the case that she became the first truly popular female country superstar at a time before there were any. You probably would not have had Loretta Lynn, for instance, if Kitty hadn’t been there first. And her influence may have spread well beyond the confines of Music City, as even some of Linda Ronstadt’s earlier embryonic C&W-rock records betray some of Kitty Wells’ influence as well.

  3. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I have Kitty at #7 (actually #5 among performers since I include two female execs in my list that you won’t have in your list). I’m not sure Kitty is completely retired yet, although she has largely quit touring.

    Kitty Wells has had an incredible career and made many great recordings. Some of them sound a bit dated but most of them hold up well. Her voice was clear, strong and unmistakeable. It was a bit of a miscarriage of justice for Patsy Cline’s induction to the CMHOF to have come before that of Kitty Wells

    The rest of my list (ahead of Kittty Wells) reads as follows:
    1 Jo Meador-Vaughan
    2 Loretta Lynn
    3 Maybelle & Sara Carter
    4 Patsy Cline
    5 Frances Preston
    6 Emmylou Harris

    and I thought long and hard before putting Kitty this low – I can make a good case for putting her behind only Loretta and the Carters as a performer . There won’t be a Loretta Lynn / Johnny Cash renaissance for Kitty Wells because of her advanced age, but she really shouldn’t need one. Her voice remained strong into her 80s

    I have the following rounding out my top ten
    8 Dolly Parton
    9 Reba McEntire
    10 Shania Twain

  4. I personally had her at #7 but, I think that #9 isn’t bad. It’s funny if you ask people who is the queen of country music you usually get Tammy Wynett as an answer from those not as familiar with the history of the genre. I was raised on my grandfather’s music and there wasn’t much Kitty Wells in there so I had to discover her on my own.

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  6. ccfNo Gravatar

    This is the one I was missing and I’m banging my head on the keyboard. I can’t belieive I left this one off.

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  8. glenn turnerNo Gravatar

    Kitty, Tammy, Loretta, and Dolly would definitely be the top 4 and the order would be debateable but i would go with Kitty at number 1 followed by tammy, Dolly and loretta in that order.

  9. I think tjhat Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Sr.
    were the two best singers that have ever been

  10. TravisNo Gravatar

    Kitty’s only sold that anyone even remotely remembers is, ” it wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels,” and she does not deserve such a ranking. She may have been one of the first female solo acts which may get her on these types of lists, but she wasn’t impressive by any means….

  11. TomNo Gravatar

    Kitty Wells should have ranked at least in the top six. She was the first female vocalist who was as big as any of the big male vocalists and she stayed up there for about fifteen years. She continued to hit the Billboard charts as late as age 60! How many female vocalists will be able to say that?

    Travis, you can’t be serious that she was not impressive. 64 top 40 country hits (34 of them going top ten) is not an impressive feat?? And again, this was mostly during an era when only a couple of other female vocalists were even just having an occasional hit record. “Making Believe” and “One by One” are certainly legendary country songs and “Release Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” were top five hits for her even if others versions are better remembered. A lot of her other songs remain popular with those who love classic country music. Kitty absolutely deserves her title The Queen of Country Music.

  12. WayneNo Gravatar

    Ms.Well paved the way so she should be respected i don’t care who sold more than her her voice is natural no computer to make her sound like she was singing she did it all no phony nothing

  13. MarkNo Gravatar

    I’ve pretty much agreed with this list list, but do disagree with Kitty Wells’ being all the way down at #9. I could actually make a case for her being #1 (even though I do agree that Dolly deserved to be there), on the basis that she was really the first woman to consistently chart, the first woman to challenge the men (with “Honky Tonk Angels”), when it really wasn’t popular to do so, and the woman who really served — directly or indirectly — as a role model for nearly every female artist, including Loretta, Dolly and Tammy, and pretty much everyone who came after. At the least I would have had Kitty in the top-five.

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