Wells changed country sound with woman-centered hit

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Before Kitty Wells, men didn’t just rule the roost in country music, they owned it.

It wasn’t until her 1952 hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” that a solo female country singer had a No. 1 record.

The song, written by a man, was a rebuttal to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” It made Wells a star, and dashed the notion that women couldn’t be headliners.

Until then, most “girl singers,” as they were called in country music, were either paired with men, like Rachael Veach with Roy Acuff, or were members of a family group, like sisters Sara and Maybelle Carter with the Carter Family.

Wells’ success also encouraged Nashville songwriters to begin writing from a woman’s perspective. Before then, women had a hard time finding material and often had to change the sex in the lyrics.

“Kitty Wells was way before Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Brenda Lee — you name it,” says country and rock hall of famer Brenda Lee, who in the ’ 80 s recorded a medley with Wells, Lynn and k. d. lang for lang’s album Shadowland.

“Kitty was right there at the forefront, and she absolutely opened those doors and pushed the button for women,” Lee says.

Wells, now 89 and the subject of a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said she never considered the song political or daring and didn’t think of herself as a feminist. To this day, she still doesn’t know what the fuss was all about.

“I never really thought about being a pioneer. I loved doing what I was doing,” she says.

In Thompson’s song, a man’s wife left him and “went back to the wild side of life.” In the chorus, Thompson sang, “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels.” Wells followed the same melody but countered that women who go astray are often led there by men.

“It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels, as you said in the words of your song,” she sang over steel guitar. “Too many times married men think they’re still single, that was caused many a good girl to go wrong.” Written by Louisiana composer J. D. Miller and produced by Owen Bradley for Decca Records, the song was controversial enough that the Grand Ole Opry asked Wells not to perform it, and some stations were reluctant to play it.

Wells didn’t even know Decca had released the song until she got a call from Hank Williams’ wife, Audrey.

“Audrey Williams had been down to Montgomery and she called me when she got back home and said, ‘Girl, you’ve got a hit on your hands. Every station I tuned to coming back from Montgomery was playing the song, ’” Wells says.

Wells’ song reached No. 1 in the summer of 1952 and stayed there for six weeks.

“That really opened doors for other women,” says exhibit curator Mick Buck. “Kitty set a new precedent.” Wells’ hit also reached No. 27 on the pop charts, the same ranking as Thompson’s hit.

The multimedia exhibit, titled “Kitty Wells: Queen of Country Music,” traces her career, from singing with husband Johnnie Wright’s duo, Johnnie & Jack, to her 35 Top 10 hits and her retirement in 2000. It includes her guitars, stage costumes, awards, vintage photos and posters.

But a big chunk of the exhibit, which runs through June, dwells on “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Ironically, Wells, whose real name is Muriel Ellen Deason, almost didn’t record the song.

She’d been singing professionally with her husband for nearly 15 years and was ready to retire and stay home with their three children. She’d already recorded for RCA as a soloist without success. Wright had to persuade her to go back to the studio.

“I thought it would be like the ones I did on RCA. Nobody even got to hear it. So we went and recorded it, and I never thought anything about it making a hit,” she says.

Wells became “The Queen of Country Music.” She had many more hits in the ’ 50 s and ’ 60 s, including “Heartbreak U. S. A.” and “Makin’ Believe.” Her career cooled by the mid-1960 s as a new wave of female singers emerged, some of whom, like Lynn, would further challenge sex roles with edgy songs such as “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin ’” and “The Pill.” Her last charting single was in 1979, although she, Wright and their children continued to tour as a family act until 2000.

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