Kitty Wells, The Girl Singer Who Became Country’s Queen

Wells transformed old cheating and heart songs into soul music by resisting the overplay of emotion, writes singer Laura Cantrell.

Mark Humphrey / AP Photo

Kitty Wells started her career as a “girl singer” in the 1940s and ended it as the “Queen of Country Music,” a mantle she assumed in the early 1950s and wore until her passing Monday at the age of 92.

Sixty years ago, her 1952 rendition of the song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” became the first chart-topping hit by a woman in country-music history. Her commercial success proved that female country music artists could sell records, make albums, headline concerts and match every success of their male counterparts. While commonplace today, this was nothing short of a revolution in the 1950s, when “girl singers” were meant to be seen, and heard just a little.

When she cut the song, Wells was a featured singer in her husband’s group, Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. She was 33, had three children and little success with her own records though she was a popular element of the group show. On the verge of retirement, she’d only agreed to record “Honky Tonk Angels” for the $125 session fee.

The song’s emergence as a proto-feminist statement was largely accidental. Written by a man, JD Miller, it was intended as an answer to the hit “Wild Side of Life” by Hank Thompson. Kitty’s reply managed to convey a feminine weariness about being underestimated and a thinly veiled anger at being blamed for domestic strife.

“I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels,” Thompson sung. “I might have known you’d never make a wife/You gave up the only one that ever loved you/And went back to the wild side of life.”

“It wasn’t God who made Honky Tonk angels,” Kitty shot back. “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.”

While this seems lyrically innocuous today, the song was deemed “suggestive” and banned by the country radio institution The Grand Ole Opry. But both female and male fans cottoned to her response, and her voice, and the song shot up the charts becoming one of the few answer songs to eclipse the one it was replying to.

Wells and her collaborators, husband Johnnie Wright and producer Owen Bradley, managed to follow up that initial success with a string of hits that went unbroken for more than a decade. Direct and frank songs like “Poison In Your Heart,” “Release Me,” “Making Believe,” “Mommy For A Day,” “This White Circle” chart a modern woman’s struggles to find love and domestic bliss in the challenging setting of the post-World War II South.

“She was my hero,” Loretta Lynn said this week. “If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself.”

Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music,” said Dolly Parton, “no matter what they call the rest of us.”

What first drew me to Kitty was her voice in her early records, high and plaintive, something ancient and visceral that cut through the hard surface of 1950s honky tonk. She transformed those old cheating and heart songs into soul music by resisting the overplay of emotion; her drama remains all pent up in that voice, painfully curtailed, both sentimental and stoic like the country folks who were her rural audience.

She had an inherent empathy for the characters she drew; in song, she could convey the anguish of the single girl who couldn’t claim to be an angel, or the bereft resolve of the young soldier’s widow walking the cemetery to “come to the place where [her love] is sleeping” knowing the shudder of grief that awaits her. The tales in the songs were in marked contrast to her domestic life, which was upright and conventional—she remained married to Johnnie Wright for more than 70 years, until his passing last autumn.

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Perhaps her upstanding life and comportment was what allowed country audiences to accept her delivery of lyrics about infidelity and anguish that perhaps seem old-hat today but were a revelation then in country music, especially coming from a female singer.

My father was a fan, but while I grew up with Wells’ music and we lived nearby to her house in Madison, Tennessee, I didn’t see her perform until I was in college and she was in her late 60s. She warbled and joked with her husband; their sets blending into one show in the old style of country entertaining: a few tearjerkers, a few jokes, love easily offered to their audience and returned in kind. It was a remnant of an older era of country song and show, without irony or drama.

As I began to learn the craft of country songs, I covered a lot of her repertoire and tried to emulate the depth of emotion that Kitty always seemed to find in the music. I realized I was performing her music in a different context than it was originally created, but a half-century later, this city girl could still relate to the hopes and defeats of the women the girl singer had described.

I would occasionally go see Kitty perform and would try to say hello and ask her a few questions about the details of her career, who had made her clothes, why she’d chosen this or that song. She was always patient— delightfully no nonsense and unassuming but also poised and slightly opaque, and slightly bemused by my interest.

In 2009, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum asked me to do a concert of Wells’ music in conjunction with an exhibit in her honor. I wrote a song about Kitty for the occasion, and eventually recorded Kitty Wells Dresses, a tribute album to her.

The next year, I saw her for the last time, bringing my album to play for her and Johnnie and their family. They were both interested in what songs I chose for my tribute and as I listed them out, seemed pleased that I picked a few that Johnnie had written for her when they were chasing the chance of another hit, of sustaining that success that must have surprised and overwhelmed them both with It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.

Johnnie broke out into song several times during this visit and Kitty joined him, falling naturally in on the harmony parts that they’d sung together for over 70 years—the two of them making just a bit more music together.