June 22, 2008
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.
- “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
- Winner of Your Heart, 1956
- Dust on the Bible, 1959
- Kitty’s Choice, 1960
- Seasons of My Heart, 1960
- Lonesome, Sad, and Blue, 1965
- ACM Pioneer Award, 1985
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1976
- Grammy: Lifetime Achievement Award, 1991