When Kitty Wells visited Kansas City on her farewell tour in 2000, I took my then 8-year-old daughter to see the
legendary singer, known as the Queen of Country Music.
Wells, at 80, graciously met with all of her fans after the show, posing for photos and autographing CDs, record albums and other memorabilia.
I wanted my daughter to see her not just because she was a legend in country music, but because she had broken barriers for women in the entertainment business.
“1st female country superstar Kitty Wells dies,” Taylor Swift tweeted on Monday, perhaps inspired by the Associated Press story that says, “Without Kitty Wells, there might be no Taylor Swift.”
Wells died Monday from complications of a stroke at her Nashville home. She was 92.
A housewife in a gingham dress, she’d hardly looked the part of feminist groundbreaker. But she was.
Her breakout hit in 1952, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” was an answer song written by Johnny D. Miller in response to Hank Thompson’s hit, “The Wild Side of Life.” In that song, Thompson blamed “a honky tonk angel” for breaking up his marriage.
Backed by the plaintive whine of a steel guitar, Wells sang, “Too many times married men think they’re still single / That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.”
It’s not hard to think of a few married men in public life who’ve acted as if they’re still single.
But back in 1952, those words were suggestive enough that NBC banned the song from radio play and the Grand Ole Opry even asked Wells not to perform it. But the recording climbed the record charts until it reached No. 1 on the Billboard country music list — the first No. 1 country song ever recorded by a female artist.
Yet Wells hadn’t expected the song to become a hit. She’d been asked to record it and agreed so she could make the $125 from the session fee.
Her career had begun when she was still a teenager in Nashville, where she was born Ellen Muriel Deason in 1919. Her father taught her to play guitar. She and her sisters performed on a local radio station.
She married country singer Johnnie Wright in 1937. He died last year, just before their 74th anniversary. It was Johnnie who gave her the stage name of Kitty Wells, lifted from an old folk ballad.
He was performing with his brother-in-law Jack Anglin as part of the Johnnie & Jack duo, which lasted until Anglin was killed in a car crash on his way to Patsy Cline’s funeral.
Wells would travel with Johnnie and Jack and fill the role of girl singer until her breakout hit in 1952. After that, she was a force to be reckoned with, and her songs told about life and love from a woman’s point of view.
She was the first female artist to sell a million copies of a record. She had 35 Billboard Top Ten records and 81 charted singles during her recording career. She made famous songs like “Your Wild Life’s Gonna Get You Down,” “Mommy for a Day,” “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God?” and “A Woman Half My Age.”
Wells was named to the Country Music Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and received the Academy of Country Music Pioneer Award in 1985 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Her last major hit was in 1971, and sadly, she faded into oblivion for many younger country music fans. But Loretta Lynn paid tribute to Kitty Wells on her Web site and tweeted, “Kitty Wells will always be the greatest female country singer of all times. She was my hero. If I’d have never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself."
Diana Reese is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKleTa94dC8&feature=related