The Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells, died Monday (July 16) at her home
in Madison, Tenn., at age 92.
Her husband of more than 70 years, country singer Johnnie Wright, died Sept. 27, 2011,
at age 97.
Wright essentially managed his wife’s famous career and made her the feature attraction as the Kitty Wells-Johnnie
Wright Family Show. In many ways a reluctant star, Wells became the first female country artist to find consistent success,
beginning with her huge 1952 Decca hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Hence her near-universal acclamation as
the Queen of Country Music, a title bestowed on her years before the 1960s heyday of women singers in the field, including
Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn,
Tammy Wynette, Dolly
Parton and others.
One of the few early stars native to Nashville, she was born Aug. 30, 1919, as Muriel Deason.
She dropped out of school during the Depression to take a factory job, but with two sisters and a cousin sang as the Deason
Sisters on Nashville radio station WSIX. In 1937, the 18-year-old Deason married Wright, a fellow Nashville radio hopeful,
who immediately put his new wife into his act (along with his sister Louise) as Johnnie Wright the Harmony Girls.
Wright added a brother-in-law, Louise’s husband Jack Anglin, to the troupe, and in that era of duet acts, they became the
featured tandem, Johnnie Jack. Anglin’s military service in World
War II only interrupted their long march to stardom by way of such places as Charleston, W.Va., Knoxville, Tenn. and Shreveport,
La. The duo finally got a second shot at Nashville’s prestigious Grand Ole Opry in 1952 on the strength of their RCA Victor
hits “Poison Love” and “Ashes of Love.”
By this time, Muriel Deason Wright was the mother of three children — Ruby,
Carol Sue and Bobby — but she remained in the touring act, even recording gospel and heart songs in 1949 and 1950 for RCA
Victor under the name she’d been given in Knoxville — Kitty Wells. (The name came from the title of an old Pickard Family
recording.) Her RCA records didn’t sell, and it was only with repeated pleadings that Johnnie Wright convinced Decca Records
producer Paul Cohen in 1952 to give Wells a chance on that label. Wells agreed to try it mainly for the $125 session fee.
(Johnnie Jack and their Tennessee Mountain Boys also earned a few dollars as the session band.)
song of that May 1952 session at Nashville’s Tulane Hotel was J.D. Miller’s answer to Hank
Thompson‘s red-hot “The Wild Side of Life.” Expressing the age-old woman’s point of view that cheating men are responsible
for fallen women, the song was “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” (Thompson’s chorus said, “I didn’t know God made
honky-tonk angels.”) Wells’ record sold some 800,000 copies in spite of — or perhaps because of — being banned from play
on the NBC Network and hence from live performance on the NBC-affiliated Grand Ole Opry.
Soon enough, Wells recorded
more hits of plaintive heartbreak from the woman’s point of view, many dealing quite frankly with modern social problems in
the process: “Release Me,” “I Heard the Juke Box Playing,” “I Gave My Wedding Dress Away,” “Making Believe,” “Paying for That
Back Street Affair,” “Your Wild Life’s Gonna Get You Down,” “Mommy for a Day” and “Heartbreak USA.” Wells’ plaintive, heartfelt
singing voice proved the perfect vehicle for this type of song, suitably framed in most cases by Shot Jackson’s crying steel
guitar. (He normally played Dobro on Johnnie Jack’s sessions.)
Usually dressed in the billowy gingham of a bygone
era, Well’s stage presence and her quiet, happy family life seemed to belie so many of her hit song themes — most often the
pain and heartbreak of weak, sinful, sometimes worldly-wise and often victimized womanhood. Never eloquent discussing her
success, Wells would just demurely smile or defer to Wright when questioned about such an obvious contrast while taking the
money to the bank as sums from record sales and touring which very soon dwarfed that initial $125 recording session fee.
the mid-1950s, Wells also scored duet hits with the field’s biggest male stars — Decca labelmates Red
Foley (“One by One” in 1954) and Roy Acuff (“Goodbye Mr. Brown” in 1955).
For a time, Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys toured with Johnnie Jack, Wells and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. (What
could be more natural than the pairing of the King and Queen of Country Music?)
Still, it was Acuff who at one point
advised Johnnie Wright against making Kitty Wells his headline act, telling him, “Women can’t headline a country music
show.” Acuff’s observation echoed another erroneous piece of traditional wisdom — that women singers couldn’t sell country
records. Before long, the field boasted a veritable galaxy of headline female stars, like Jean
Shepard, Patsy Cline, Skeeter Davis, Loretta Lynn, Melba
Montgomery, Tammy Wynette, Norma Jean, Dolly Parton and Jan Howard.
Wells’ success had changed the face of country music forever.
Of her 84 singles which charted in Billboard magazine,
38 made the Top 10. Her last major hit came in 1971, but she recorded for years afterwards, leaving Decca/MCA for a short
stint on Capricorn Records before settling onto the family-owned Ruboca label.
Jack Anglin’s tragic death in a 1963
auto accident turned Wright into a solo singer, while the couple’s son, Bobby Wright, had the most success of the children,
both as a country singer and as an actor, working in the ’60s as a cast member of the popular McHale’s Navy TV show.
was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. In 1989, she recorded the “Honky-Tonk Angels Medley” with K.D.
Lang, Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee, her final major recording project
and a Grammy-nominated performance. In 1991, she was presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award — the first female country
star so honored and only the third country artist who had received the honor (after Roy Acuff and Hank
Wells and Wright still played selected dates in the late 1990s and performed their farewell concert
on Jan. 31, 2000, in Nashville.
Funeral services will be held Friday (July 20) at 1 p.m. at the Hendersonville Church
of Christ in Hendersonville, Tenn.