Just a few weeks shy of her 93rd birthday, the Queen of Country Music has passed away.
Kitty Wells was the first female country superstar, and for many years, the only consistent female hit-maker.
She also started a long tradition of controversial female records being banned at country radio. Her answer song to “The Wild Side of Life” spent six weeks at #1 in 1952, and her name would forever be associated with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Indeed, the record made such a big impact that many don’t even know it was an answer song in the first place.
Her other big classic was “Making Believe”, which spent an astonishing 15 weeks at #2 in 1955.
Wells’ trailblazing career landed her at #9 on Country Universe’s 100 Greatest Women feature back in 2007. You can read her entry here.
One of the great crooners of the post-war era, Red Foley helped build a crucial bridge between the country music of the mountains and the Nashville Sound of the sixties.
Born Clyde Foley in 1910, his hair color earned him the nickname Red. His professional career was launched by a talent show win at age 17. As a freshman in college, he was discovered by a talent scout and invited to join the house band of the National Barn Dance. He released his first recordings in the mid-thirties, and by the end of that decade, he was the first country artist to host a nationally broadcast radio show, which he co-hosted with Red Skelton. During this period, Foley wrote “Ol’ Shep”, which would be recorded by many major artists, including Elvis Presley and Hank Snow.
Following World War II, he entered a period of stunning success in many media formats, earning himself the title Mr. Country Music. Throughout the forties and fifties, his recording career was incredibly successful, highlighted by collaborations with his band, the Cumberland Valley Boys, and fellow artists like Lawrence Welk, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells. Several of his songs are now country classics, most notably “Smoke on the Water,” “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy,” and “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me).”
Beginning in 1946, he emceed the Prince Albert Show, which broadcast a portion of the Grand Ole Opry’s show every week. His profile was raised even more significantly by the Ozark Jubilee, the fifties network television show that Foley hosted for many years. His television fame helped bring his smooth style of country music to a very broad audience, though Foley never actively pursued the pop music scene.
Indeed, his country records decreased in popularity as the Nashville Sound took root, though his gospel recordings remained quite popular. The sixties found him guesting on sitcoms and talk shows, while he continued to tour the world as part of the Grand Ole Opry cast. In 1967, Foley was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an achievement that was sadly overshadowed one year later by his untimely death at age 58.
Today, Foley’s name is not as recognizable as many of his contemporaries, but it takes only one listen to his signature songs to immediately grasp the impact he had on the development of contemporary country music.
By now, “Any Man of Mine” has become such a familiar Shania classic that it’s easy to take for granted what a bold artistic move it was at the time.
Though feminist viewpoints previously had surfaced in country music at times through the likes of Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells, they were the exception rather than the rule in 1995. In the early to mid-nineties, it was more common for female artists like Reba to be topping the charts with sad songs that often cast the woman as the victim.
Then here comes Shania with a rousing, fiddle-burning, boot-stomper in which she firmly proclaims that a man should strive to be worthy of his woman’s affections, and that a woman accepts nothing less. Her point was delivered through clever, witty lyrics that ranged from “Any man of mine’ll say ‘It fits just right’ when last year’s dress is just a little too tight” to “When I’m cookin’ dinner and I burn it black, he better say ‘Mmm, I like it like that.’”
Releasing a song like “Any Man of Mine” had to take some guts. Shania had already seen her first album flop, and had just previously scored her first significant hit with “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under.” One could easily understand if she wanted to keep up her newfound momentum, and groom her relationship with country radio by releasing some safe, middle-of-the-road bit of nineties schmaltz.
But she didn’t. She stayed true to herself, and made a genuine artistic statement of her own. And what do you know? It worked! With “Any Man of Mine,” Shania kicked, turned, and stomp-stomped all the way to the top of the charts, with “Any Man of Mine” becoming her first U.S. number-one hit. Since then, the tune has deservedly gone on to become one of Shania’s most enduring, best-loved hits.
It’s just so unmistakably Shania. No wonder this song is so fondly remembered by her fans.
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain
While we continue to notice tangible gender inequities in country music today, particularly the ratio of male artists versus female artists that are played on mainstream radio, the gap between what male and female artists can sing about has narrowed considerably. Moreover, it’s certainly not uncommon to hear a range of topics from female singers that reveal the strength of independent minded, empowered women.
In 1968, however, women’s anthems were not so common or accepted and if they were, it was somewhat of an anomaly. While Kitty Wells had a smash with “It Wasn’t God who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in 1952, written as an answer to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life”, the recording and release of Dolly Parton’s 1968 single “Just Because I’m A Woman” was still a bold move at the time.
Written in response to her husband’s disappointment that he was not her first sexual relationship, even though she was not his first either, Parton points out “my mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman.” She even goes as far to detail the glaring double standard by observing: “Now a man will take a good girl/ And he’ll ruin her reputation/ But when he wants to marry/ Well, that’s a different situation.”
The tune is not especially catchy and it’s not bolstered by a raucous production like some of country music’s favorite anthems of today, but those missing elements only make Dolly’s anthem of gender equity even more poignant as she sings with both tenderness and matter-of-factness regarding a hypocritical attitude that still exists in 2011.
The list continues with appearances from artists who first surfaced in the eighties and continued to thrive into the nineties, like Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless, along with new stars from the nineties who would find greater success in the next decade, like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #300-#276
#300 Does He Love You Reba McEntire with Linda Davis
1993 | Peak: #1
This two-female duet was a gamble at the time of its release, but it offers such a brilliant fusion of perspectives that it’s hard to imagine why. The song fleshes out the range of emotions that the two women are experiencing –from pain to longing to self-doubt– and culminates in one shared question that they’ll never know the answer to: “does he love you like he’s been loving me?” – Tara Seetharam (more…)
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.