Wells, 91 years old and married to fellow country singer Johnnie Wright, is the oldest living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and perhaps the greatest living essayer of heartbreak ballads.
Cantrell performed at a Wells tribute concert organized by the Hall in 2009, which inspired Cantrell's just-released tribute disc, "Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music." The title song was written by Cantrell, the rest are some of Wells' best-loved numbers, “songs I'd lived with and loved for a long time," says Cantrell.
In a phone interview with Click Track, Cantrell, who plays Jammin' Java on Saturday, talked about meeting Wells, making the album, and her long ago days as a Hall of Fame tour guide.
How did this project come about?
Initially I was approached by the Country Music Hall of Fame to do a program for them in 2009 based around a new type of exhibit they were launching dedicated to Hall of Fame members…I think they asked me because I'd been a longtime, very vocal fan of hers…To get asked to do that concert gave me a reason to dust off some old songs of hers and think of her career and why she was important. Once I put the work into that, I realized maybe I should make a little recording that documented the work we did to learn her songs.
What about her [resonated with you]?
To me her voice was always very interesting. She's not the flashiest singer. She's not someone who now is remembered as one of the great vocalists. I always thought she was very underestimated. She was very emotional as a vocalist, but with this underlying restraint. When you pair that up with the material she was doing in the early '50s which was very frank and very refreshingly open…on matters of the heart or domestic matters, that was a pretty potent combination.
[She’s underrated in part because] she's had a drama-free life. She didn’t die young, she didn't have a splashy divorce.
She's sort of had a conventional life in a way, [although] I think that's a superficial view. I think anybody who's been a partner in a show business couple in country music in the '50s and '60s, that had to be a very gypsy lifestyle. But because they were southern and Christian and conventional on the surface, I think people just overlooked what might be interesting about her.
You worked [as a teenaged tour guide] at the Hall of Fame. What was the big thing on the tour that everyone always wanted to see?
In Studio B, where a lot of records were made, including Elvis's Christmas record, people would get all Holy Elvis at the piano. There were a lot of touching things, like items found at the Patsy Cline plane crash site that belonged to her. One of the things I loved to do was, there were some films of Jimmie Rodgers in Kinescope, and I loved being the person who started the film because I got to sit in the room a little bit and hear his songs.
When you did the Kitty Wells tribute show, was she there?
Unfortunately she couldn't come to our concert but I did get to go see her last summer. She and her husband had already [approved] the song I wrote for her and invited me over. They were just a normal elderly couple, watching NASCAR on mute on a Sunday afternoon. She's 91, he's 97 now. They wanted to know all about the songs I'd chosen. They were very normal people, very down to earth, not too worried about the songs I'd chosen or about being legendary…If we'd never gotten to do anything else positive from the record, that alone was kind of adorable.