Johnnie Wright, a member of the innovative country vocal duo Johnnie and Jack and the husband and manager to singer Kitty Wells, died of undisclosed causes Sept. 27 at his home in Madison, Tenn. He was 97.
The death was confirmed by his son-in-law Tom Sturdivant.
With his singing partner Jack Anglin, Mr. Wright placed 15 records in the country Top 20 between 1951 and 1962. A string bassist, he sang lead while Anglin, a rhythm guitarist, took the high harmonies.
While their twangy, largely acoustic style had roots in traditional country singing duos and string bands, they were open to new sounds and ideas.
“In a sense, they kept an old-timey sound but updated it with new rhythms, something the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers did shortly after,” said Michael McCall, a curator at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
The partnership with Anglin assured Mr. Wright a place in country music history, but he was equally well known as Wells’s spouse.
They married in 1937, and Mr. Wright played a significant role guiding her career. Inspired by an old folk song, “Sweet Kitty Wells,” he urged her to change her stage name from Muriel Ellen Deason.
With hits including “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in 1952, Wells surpassed the popularity of Johnnie and Jack, with whom she often toured as a featured act.
Mr. Wright soon made the move — a bold one for country music in that era — of giving a female singer top billing over his group.
“We worked with Roy Acuff for a year, and he never would feature a girl because he didn’t think a girl could be a star of a show,” Mr. Wright told the publication Nashville Scene. “We got to talking about it, and I said, ‘I don’t see why, if she’s more popular than Johnnie and Jack, we couldn’t call it the ‘Kitty Wells Family Show With Johnnie and Jack.’ And it worked.”
In fact, Wells had considered becoming a full-time homemaker but instead brought their three children on the road and, eventually, into the show as performers. Her trailblazing tours — she was promoted as the Queen of Country Music — paved the way for such later female country headliners as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
Johnnie Robert Wright was born May 13, 1914, in Mount Juliet, Tenn., a farming community outside Nashville.
He met Kitty Wells when his sister moved next door to her. She sang gospel with a cousin as the Deason Sisters on Nashville radio station WSIX. Soon after, Mr. Wright and his sister joined Wells on the air.
“I listened to her play guitar and sing, and I knew right then I had to figure out some way to get her to marry me,” he told the Nashville Tennessean in 2001. “I’d take her to buy a Coca-Cola, then I’d feel around my pockets to see if I had enough money to buy one for both of us.”
In addition to his wife of 73 years, survivors include two children, John Robert “Bobby” Wright and Carol Sue Wright Sturdivant; eight grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren.
A daughter, Ruby Wright, died in 2009.
Mr. Wright first teamed with Anglin in 1940; he was married to Wells’s sister, making the touring group a sizable family affair. As Johnnie and Jack, their breakthrough recording was “Poison Love,” produced by Chet Atkins. Atkins had earlier worked with the duo on a radio station in Knoxville, Tenn.
The partnership ended abruptly in 1963, when Anglin died in a car crash en route to Cline’s funeral. (The duo changed its name to “Johnny and Jack” after Johnnie had been misspelled on a record label in 1961, and Mr. Wright kept the easier spelling.)
Continuing with Wells as a solo artist, Mr. Wright had a hit with Tom T. Hall’s patriotic song “Hello Vietnam” (1965), later featured in the Stanley Kubrick film “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). The Kitty Wells Family Show continued touring until 2001.
When interviewed, the Wrights were often asked the secret to their enduring musical and marital partnership. Both had different perspectives.
“If we have problems, we just talk it over, get it out of the way and move on,” Wells told a Canadian newspaper in 1999.
Mr. Wright added in the same interview: “I’ve learned to let the woman have her way. She must be doing something right.”