Kitty Wells, country music star, dies at 92

July 16, 2012

Kitty Wells, a country singer with a piercing nasal twang who became one of the first female headliners in her profession and whose repertoire of tear-jerking songs about adultery and broken homes brought a woman’s perspective to a male-dominated genre, died July 16 at her home in Madison, Tenn., after a stroke. She was 92.

The death was confirmed by her son-in-law Tom Sturdivant.

Starting with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Ms. Wells achieved 51 hits in the Billboard country Top 20 from 1952 to 1966. Her relentless touring on a circuit of county fairs, fire department carnivals and small-town auditoriums paved the way for later female entertainers in country music, including Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.

Part of Ms. Wells’s appeal was the contrast between the harrowing songs that became her trademark and her wholesome appearance as a demure Southern housewife in a flowing gingham dress.

Ms. Wells was a 33-year-old homemaker and part-time singer when producer Paul Cohen at Decca Records approached her in 1952 about singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” It proved her breakthrough.

Written by a man, J.D. Miller, the lyrics cited male neglect and adultery as the reason behind a wife’s infidelity. It was intended as a riposte to Hank Thompson’s hit of that same year, “The Wild Side of Life,” an ode to an unfaithful wife.

Ms. Wells sang:

It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels

As you said in the words of your song

Too many times married men think they’re still single

That has caused many a good girl to go wrong

“Honky Tonk Angels” spent 15 weeks as the No. 1 country song, according to Billboard, but the tune was not without controversy.

NBC tried to ban “Honky Tonk Angels,” even though Ms. Wells had already performed it on the Grand Ole Opry. The network took issue with the line, “It brings back memories when I was a trustful wife.” Ms. Wells changed the word “trustful” to “trusting” — putting slightly less emphasis on the female character’s extramarital dalliances — and the censors were placated.

Nashville songwriters gave Ms. Wells further hits, mostly country ballads dealing with heartbreak, divorce and the wages of sin. The very titles — “Making Believe,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (later a pop hit for Ray Charles), “Mommy For a Day,” “Will Your Lawyer Talk To God” and “A Woman Half My Age” — implied an impassioned suffering and near martyrdom.

“Most of them don’t pertain to my life,” Ms. Wells told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1993. She added that “Honky Tonk Angels” was “just a way for the womenfolk to get back at the men.”

Her revue, the Kitty Wells Family Show, lived up to its name. Her husband, Johnnie Wright of the Johnnie and Jack duo, managed and performed with her. Their three children, Ruby, Carol Sue and Bobby Wright, spent summers on the tour bus and later joined them as performers.

“People knew that she was an honest, decent wife and mother,” country music scholar Charles K. Wolfe told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2000. “Though she was singing about love affairs, adultery and things like that, it was made permissible because she was still couched in conservative terms.”

In 1991, Ms. Wells received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement — the first female country singer to receive the honor. She had been nominated for a Grammy for “Honky Tonk Angels Medley,” a recording she made in 1988 with k.d. lang, Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.

Lynn wrote in her memoir, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” that she was inspired by songs in which Ms. Wells presented “the women’s point of view, which is different from the man’s. And I always remembered that when I started writing songs.”

Ms. Wells was born Muriel Ellen Deason on Aug. 30, 1919, in Nashville into a family of country and gospel musicians. The stage name Kitty Wells, from a folk song “Sweet Kitty Wells,” was given to her by her husband.

As a Depression-era teenager, Ms. Wells dropped out of high school to take a job laundering shirts for $9 a week. With two sisters and a cousin, she also sang on the radio. The four were billed as the Deason Sisters.

At 18, Ms. Wells married Wright, whom she had met when his sister Louise moved next door to her. The three soon performed together as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls. In 1939, when Wright and Ms. Wells’ s brother-in-law, Jack Anglin, started a string band, Johnnie and Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys, Ms. Wells was a featured “girl singer.”

Her husband died in September at age 97. A daughter, Ruby Wright, died in 2009.

Survivors include two children, John Robert “Bobby” Wright and Carol Sue Wright Sturdivant; eight grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren.

In the 1970s, Ms. Wells attempted to broaden her appeal with an album of rock and soul songs featuring members of the Allman Brothers Band. “Forever Young” (1974) included the Bob Dylan title song and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” which had been a hit for Otis Redding. Critics gave the record favorable reviews, but it didn’t sell well.

Ms. Wells always seemed circumspect, even humble when told she had been a trailblazer for other female performers in country music.

“I feel honored that people feel that way,” Ms. Wells said. “There’s always got to be a first person, I guess, and I was fortunate enough to be the one.”

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