Kitty Wells - Biography



By Jonny Whiteside

 

            Grand Ole Opry star Kitty Wells has proudly held the title "Queen of Country Music" since the mid-20th century and, in a strictly historical context, no one--Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn--has ever toppled Wells from her throne.

 

            Annually certified as America's number one "Country Female Artist" by Billboard and Cashbox for 14 years in a row and inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. Wells also received a 1981 NARAS Governor's Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Recording Industry, the 1985 Academy of Country Music's Pioneer Award, and the 1991 NARAS Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a single litany of honor which she achieved simply remaining true to herself--a traditional, old-time hillbilly folk singer. While there was a considerable, long-established coven of female talent that preceded her (high-powered competitors like Pasty Montana, Rose Maddox, Lulu Belle, Wilma Lee Cooper, and Carolina Cotton), when Wells' 1952 recording of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" hit the jukeboxes, it was an immediate sensation, selling well over a million copies and guaranteeing  her coronation--despite the fact that she was barred from performing it at the notoriously conservative Grand Ole Opry.

 

            Born Ellen Muriel Deason on August 30, 1919 in Nashville, Tennessee, the singer led a typical Depression-era youth and with instruction from her father,  a banjo and guitar picker who worked as brakeman for the Tennessee Central Railroad, had learned to play guitar at age 14. In 1935, Wells, with sisters Mae and Jewel, began performing as the Deason Sisters and soon landed an early morning slot on tiny local radio station WSIX. Following graduation from high school, she wed Johnnie Wright, an apprentice cabinet maker and country music aspirant who also had his own show on WSIX. Wright quickly brought in Muriel and another sister, Louise, to perform as the Harmony Girls on the program, and after Louise married Jack Anglin (one third of another WSIX mainstay sibling trio, the Anglin Brothers), she laid a foundation that led to Anglin and Wright's 1940 formation of their Johnnie & Jack duo, one of the most popular post-war country twosomes. It made for a pretty powerful little package show, and the two couples barnstormed around the Southeast throughout the war years, playing local dances and broadcasting over Raleigh, North Carolina's WPTF, Knoxville, Tennessee's KNOX, Bluefield, West Virginia's WCHS, and three of the regions most powerful and influential country radio stations, WEAS in Decatur, Georgia, Shreveport, Louisiana's  KWKH, home to the Louisiana Hayride and back home at WSM's Grand Ole Opry. Along the way, Wright bestowed his wife with her stage name, taken from an old-time song title, "Sweet Kitty Wells," cementing the singer's ineradicable association with rural musical tradition

 

            But it was Johnnie & Jack who got hot, landing a post-war deal with RCA and scoring major hits like "Ashes of Love." Wright got Wells her own deal with the label but her first releases made little impact (interestingly, one of them was "Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet," a cover of a popular gospel song just recorded by then top national girl singer, Rose Maddox). Regular appearances on the Opry came steadily, but success continued to elude Wells as a solo artist, and by the spring of 1952, she was considering giving it up to stay home and concentrate on raising her three children.  It was at that point that Paul Cohen, A&R head of  Decca Records, mentioned to Wright that he needed a girl singer to cut an "answer song" to Hank Thompson's 1951 smash "The Wild Side of Life." Naturally, Wright suggested Kitty Wells. Cohen went for it, and in May signed Wells to the label. She really didn't like the song, but needed the $125 scale payment the session guaranteed.

 

            Thompson's chart-topping "Wild Side of Life" was an intense, minor-keyed example of modern honky tonk that lamented the loss of a girl to the wicked ways of the smoky tavern (oddly, the melody was lifted in its entirety from the old gospel song “The Great Speckled Bird,” a 1938 hit for Roy Acuff; the Carter Family had also appropriated it for their "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes"), and Cohen's answer, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" written by JD Miller, took pains to highlight the fact that it was the poor behavior of men toward women that drove them to abyss of the honky tonk. Psychologically, the lyrics were very challenging for 1952 country music standards, but Wells, with her mournful, nasal, back-hills tone, gave the song an ideal mixture of wounded vulnerability and steely, righteous reserve--the original torch and twang performance. It promptly hit number one on Billboards Country & Folk chart and stayed there for the next six weeks--despite the fact that the Opry wouldn't let her perform it there. No other title, in the long history of pop answer songs, had ever reached the top spot.

 

            After her first hit, Decca signed Wells to an unprecedented lifetime contract, and it proved a shrewd move--she pumped out hits like mad; her 1953 duet with Red Foley, "One by One" went to number one and remained on the chart's upper region for a full year; that same year another answer song, "Paying for That Back Street Affair," made the top ten. She exploited her overnight "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" fame with titles like "Cheatin's a Sin," "There's Poison in Your Heart," "Release Me," and "Your Wild Life's  Gonna Get You Down." Wells also had staying power, consistently placing  records on the country charts for the next 27 years.

 

            While her career-making hit had thrust her into the morally questionable realm of honky tonk music, Wells never abandoned her staunchly traditional sound, and along with Johnnie & Jack, represented  commercial royalty at the Grand Ole Opry. While Patsy Montana's 1935 smash "I Want to be a Cowboys Sweetheart" had eventually sold more than a million copies (during the height of the Great Depression), no one in Nashville had ever before managed it--and would not repeat it until Willie & Waylon's 1978's blockbuster Wanted: the Outlaws. Wells kept recording up until 1989, and with Wright and their son Bobby remained active up through the 1990's, touring the United States and appearing at festivals worldwide, all with that Queen of Country Music crown very firmly in place. On July 16, 2012 Wells passed away at the age of 92.

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