Kitty Wells, the "Queen of Country Music" who blazed the trail
for female performers in the genre, died Monday at her home at the age of 92
after complications from a stroke.
Mrs. Wells became a groundbreaking force in country music with her breakthrough
1952 hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” the first No. 1 hit
by a solo female on the country charts. She went on to be the country music industry’s
top female vocalist for 14 straight years, with hits
including “Making Believe,” “Release Me” and “Amigo’s Guitar,” and
was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. Throughout her career and 74-year
marriage to fellow country star Johnnie Wright, Wells provided a model
to which future generations of female country stars aspired.
“Country music lost an icon that we as females in country music hold up,” country
star Lee Ann Womack said on Monday. “She paved the way for generations
after her and really made a mark for women in country. It’s a tough business for women.
She proved that she could sell records and tickets and have hits in a time when
that hadn’t been proven yet by female acts.”
Born Muriel Ellen Deason in Nashville in 1919, Mrs. Wells was part of a
musical family. Her father was a country musician, her mother a gospel singer, and Mrs. Wells
embraced music at an early age. As a teenager, she learned to play guitar and
began singing with her two sisters and a cousin as the Deason Sisters.
In 1937, at the age of 18, she married Johnnie Wright, beginning a 74-year marriage and
"It was just luck that we met,” Wright told The Tennessean in 1995. “I brought my mother
and father to visit my sister one Sunday afternoon in 1935. My sister happened
to move next door to Kitty's people, and she said, ‘There's a girl next door
that plays guitar and sings gospel songs.’ Two years later, we were married.”
It was Wright who gave Mrs. Wells her stage name, which originated
from a folk song recorded by the Pickard Family in 1930.
Mrs. Wells sang with Wright in several outfits: first with her sister as
Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls, and later with Wright and Jack Anglin
as Johnny & Jack. The latter’s performances
on the “Louisiana Hayride” radio program led to a deal with RCA Records. Mrs.
Wells made a few solo recordings for the label in 1949 and 1950, but didn’t land a hit.
By 1952, Mrs. Wells was considering retiring from music to focus on home-making when
she was persuaded to record the J.D. Miller-penned “Honky Tonk Angels.” The song
was a response to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” and while it borrowed
the melody from the recent country hit, its lyrics turned the gender tables:
Where "Wild Side of Life" blamed a carousing woman for a
man's sorrow, Wells' version blamed men for "every heart that's ever broken."
Mrs. Wells' song broke onto country charts that summer, and by August, it had
knocked "Wild Side of Life" out of the No. 1 slot, making her
the first solo female artist to top country charts.
In the wake of Mrs. Wells’ success, record labels began signing other women to recording
contracts and marketing their singles with the same enthusiasm they'd shown for male artists.
“She was my hero,” Country Music Hall of Famer Loretta Lynn said in a release
on Monday. “If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would
have been a singer myself. I wanted to sound just like her, but as far
as I am concerned, no one will ever be as great as Kitty Wells.”
Barbara Mandrell, another Country Music Hall of Famer and a longtime
friend of Kitty Wells, also released a statement about her mentor’s life and work, “Kitty
Wells was every female country music performer’s heroine. She lead the way for
all of us and I feel very grateful and honored to have known her. She was always the
most gracious, kind and lovely person to be around. I so appreciated her being a part
of my life and a mentor to me.”
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, July 20 at 1 p.m. at the Hendersonville
Church of Christ. Visitation will be held from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday,
July 19 at Hendersonville Church of Christ.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to to Goodpasture Christian School
in Madison, Tenn. by way of of the Kitty Wells/Johnnie Wright Scholarship Fund.
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