Country Music has weathered seismic changes since May 1949, when Kitty Wells stepped up from her gig as “girl singer” with Johnnie & Jack and their group and stood alone behind a microphone at Owen Bradley’s Castle Studios. She had agreed to record a song written by J.D. Miller and pitched by Troy Martin. It didn’t thrill Wells or her husband, Johnnie Wright of Johnnie & Jack, but she agreed to cut it mainly for the $125 session fee.
That song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” exploded when released that summer, rocketing to No. 1, staying there for six weeks and selling well over a million copies. It pushed Wells from the background in her husband’s group and square into the center of the Country Music spotlight. It also caused controversy by daring to rebut Hank Thompson’s hit, “Wild Side of Life,” which dismissed a wife gone bad as a “honky tonk angel” for abandoning marriage and succumbing to the temptation of saloons “where the wine and liquor flow, where you want to be anybody’s baby.”
Country Music had seen gifted female performers before the advent of Kitty Wells, but none had challenged slatternly stereotypes as boldly as she did on this single. The moral onus, she sang, lay not on fallen women but on those who exploited them because “too many times married men think they’re still single. That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.”
This shift in perspective stirred controversy. Wells was even briefly banned from singing it during broadcast segments of “The Grand Ole Opry.” But this initial resistance washed quickly away as Country Music reacted to the implications of its success – namely, that there was more than one point of view for songs that address the realities of life and that women could assume equal importance to men as singers and, ultimately, in every other aspect of the business. That door would have opened inevitably, but it was Wells who made it happen.
In a career distinguished by 35 Top 10 singles, election to CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and universal acknowledgment as “the Queen of Country Music” well before her last tour in 2007, she revisited the themes of betrayal, heartbreak, treachery in love and the saloon’s fatal lure. In the worlds she conjured, the “lights were dim and low” (“Honky Tonk Waltz”), her sister steals away her suitor (“I Gave My Wedding Dress Away”), the true love of her life is forever out of reach (“Makin’ Believe”) or a heartless hypocrite who stands too close (“Poison in Your Heart”), and when she does marry the man of her dreams, he turns out to either do “too many parties and too much drinkin’, too many sweethearts and too little thinkin’” (“The Pace That Kills”) or suspect her of doing the same (“Jealousy”).
The irony is that the life Wells lived was the antithesis of those suffered by the broken, forlorn protagonists in her music. Her union with Wright was deep and enduring. It was he who named her; she had been born Ellen Muriel Deason but he thought the name Kitty Wells, borrowed from an old folk ballad, was more suited to the stage. They worked together for decades, adding their son and two daughters to the act as the Kitty Wells-Johnnie Wright Family Show. Wright passed away in 2011, just a few days short of their 74th anniversary.
In purely musical terms, Wells’ sound has faded from contemporary Country. Backed by acoustic guitars, bass, one or more fiddles and steel guitar, she was a strict traditionalist, never indulging in dramatic crescendos, soaring leaps or melodic embellishment. Almost invariably, she stayed within an octave range, articulating the lyric squarely on each beat, singing either without any vibrato or with a tight, quick warble on long notes. Yet her singing communicated powerfully, conveying sadness and even searing pain through her unadorned delivery.
Listen to her recording of “Release Me.” Her version was released in 1954, more or less simultaneously with Ray Price’s rendition. He sings it with a wide-open throat, his voice catching now and then to underscore emotional turns in the words and melody. Wells holds back more. Aside from a quiet downward glissando at the end of a few long notes, she sings almost conversationally. She keeps her feelings in check, but this keeps listeners riveted. Even now, she has few if any peers in her ability to get to the heart of a song with no pretense or apparent effort.
“Country Music would not be what it is today without Kitty Wells,” said CMA CEO Steve Moore. “The honesty of the songs she sang, her courage in claiming a role for women as a powerful voice in Country Music and her great dignity onstage and in her life have benefited us all beyond measure. Now and forever, she is the Queen of Country Music.”
Kitty Wells, 92, passed away July 16 in Nashville, her lifelong hometown, from complications as a result of a stroke.