Before there was Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, there was Kitty Wells. The singer was the first woman to become a major star in country music, and only the third country artist to win a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Underlying it all was a clear, appealing voice with a knack for tugging at the heartstrings.
Among Wells’ many rare features was the fact that she was born in Nashville, which was almost unheard-of among country stars, even in the genre’s early days. Born in 1919 as Ellen Deason, she and her sisters used to sing for the local radio station. She got married to Johnnie Wright when she was 18 and started touring with his duo, eventually called Johnnie & Jack (with Jack Anglin). It was Wright who suggested her stage name, inspired by the mournful 19th-century song “Sweet Kitty Wells.”
After years of singing backup for her husband, whose promoter warned him that putting a woman out front would kill sales, Wells signed a solo deal with RCA Victor in 1949. Less than a year later, unsure how to promote a woman in country music, they dropped her. (For context, Patsy Cline’s career didn’t really get rolling until 1960.)
Everything changed in 1952, when Wells, about ready to pack in her music career, reluctantly agreed to Decca Record’s request to record a single called “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The song took a woman’s perspective, wondering why women get blamed for all love’s heartaches when men are so often the ones who cheat. It was meant as an answer to Hank Thompson’s hit “The Wild Side of Life,” which portrayed women as immoral destroyers of happy homes.
At first Wells’ song was banned, including by the Grand Ole Opry, but public demand made them see dollar signs, and the industry relented. Soon Wells’ single was the first No. 1 country hit by a woman.
In those days, the single was king and albums were a marketing afterthought, so Wells focused on making hit songs like “Release Me” and “Making Believe” but didn’t release her first full solo album until 1956. She would go on to make nearly 40 of them.
On her debut, Winner of Your Heart, she recorded 12 songs that had not yet been put out as singles. She was not a songwriter herself, but she (and her management at Decca) were skilled at finding material that suited her. As the tribute to her on the Country Music Hall of Fame website points out, she had an innocent manner but specialized in singing stories told through the eyes of “fallen” women who’ve been roughed up by life. The public lapped it up; this album’s big hit was “She’s No Angel.” Another song in that vein is “Dancing with a Stranger”:
In the early 1960s, she had many Top-10 hits, including “Heartbreak USA” (with backing vocals by the Jordanaires) and the hilariously titled “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God?”
Listening to Wells’ records from that era is a self-contained course in the development of country music. Take “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” for example, from the1960 album Kitty’s Choice. The song is by Julius Kuczynski, better known as Pee Wee King, the hugely successful songwriter who gave the world “The Tennessee Waltz.” Like that blockbuster, the title here refers to a pre-existing folk song heard by the song’s narrator while the action takes place. The chorus, in a minor key, quotes a faux “snake charmer” tune popular in comic acts and cartoons.
Even the spokes-singer for female “sinners” could not resist the urge to turn her talents to gospel. That rich repertoire was an integral part of the fabric of early country music. Wells released Singing on Sunday in 1962. Wells’ own faith notwithstanding, it’s important to note a larger marketing impetus behind this record, which the company did not try to hide. As the back jacket of the Decca Hi-Fi Stereophonic LP puts it:
“[Wells’ performance] reflects the joy and fulfillment of truly believing, and the wholesome satisfaction derived from being able to become the most popular and beloved personality in her field without depriving her family (who have always come first with Kitty) of any of the love and attention she feels they deserve.”
In other words, it’s okay to buy and enjoy her records because here’s proof that she’s not actually one of the lost souls she usually sings about.
All that aside, Wells’ performance of this repertoire is heartfelt and has an appealing purity. Here is “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet.” The steel guitarist, fiddler, mandolinist, and the man singing harmony are not identified.
With her clear but never overpowering voice, Wells was an ideal candidate for duet albums. She made several, pairing up with her husband Johnny Wright for a couple of them. She also had a lot of success recording singles and eventually an album with fellow Decca superstar Red Foley, who is considered a major influence on the development of early rock and roll.
The Wells/Foley collaboration Together Again came out in 1967, featuring hit songs like “Hello Number One” and “Happiness Means You.” On the bluegrass-infused “As Long as I Live,” you can hear how well their voices blend in mountain harmony. The sound of them trading verses evokes a middle-aged couple sitting on a porch in some Tennessee holler, passing the evening in song.
After Decca was purchased by MCA in 1973, Wells stuck with smaller labels, including one started by herself and her husband. Although her fame had passed its peak, she did have some bursts of success. In 1974, her country-blues album called Forever Young did well, with backing by the Allman Brothers Band’s Chuck Leavell and the Marshall Tucker Band’s Toy Caldwell. Her 1979 single “Thank You for the Roses” hit the charts when she was 60 years old. In 1989 she was nominated for a Grammy for the single “Honky Tonk Medley,” a quartet with k.d. lang, Brenda Lee, and Loretta Lynn. She got her Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Wells continued to perform, often with her husband, until their retirement in 2000. She died in 2012 at the age of 92, having paved the way for multiple generations of women country singers and having lived to witness the fruits of her labor.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Capricorn Records/public domain.