Kitty Wells, known as the “Queen of Country Music,” died on Monday at the age of 92 in Madison, Tennessee, after complications from a stroke. Considered the first female superstar of country music, Wells began her career in the 1930’s, but didn’t achieve widespread fame until 1952, when she recorded the #1 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, after years of toiling in the trenches, that song was a kind of musical hail Mary, intended as a last effort to score a hit before retiring to be a stay-at-home mom. Focused on the $125 union pay scale she’d receive for the session, Wells instead scored a hit that launched her career.
Thanks to that song, Wells continued recording through the late 1970’s and touring until she retired from the road in 2000. Along the way she scored other hits with songs such as “Making Believe,” “Mommy For a Day,” “Your Wild Life’s Gonna Get You Down” and “One By One,” while putting up 35 top 10 country hits, recording 50 albums and blazing a trail for other females in a genre that was then dominated by male performers. Many of her songs dealt with the messy aftermath of affairs and divorces, topics that were thought of as taboo by many at the time.
“Honky Tonk” also established her as a strong voice for female singers thanks to pointed lyrics that responded to the 1952 Hank Thompson hit, “The Wild Side of Life,” in which a man blamed a woman he met in a juke joint for breaking up his marriage and then leaving him for someone else. The controversial song — which some country stations refused to play — was #1 for six weeks in 1952 and established Wells as a vanguard for future female country stars who emulated her confident, assertive voice.
Among those who’ve cited her as an influence or whose work took inspiration from the million-selling “Angels” are such country icons as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Shania Twain, as well as modern singers Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. Reacting to Wells’ death, Lynn called the singer her hero and said, “If I had never heard Kitty Wells sing, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself.”
Not only did the song make her a star, but it also bucked the conventional wisdom of the first half of the century, which said that audiences wouldn’t buy records by female singers or pay to see them headline gigs. Once “Angels” hit the platinum peak, artists such as Cline, Lynn, Wynette and Parton got second looks from record executives.
Wells was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in 1991, making her the third country performer, and first female, to earn that honor from the Recording Academy.
Muriel Ellen Deason was born August 30, 1919, in Nashville, to country singer Charles Cary Deason and gospel singer Myrtle Bell Deason. She began her career in the 1930s singing as part of a quartet with her siblings and a cousin, the Deason Sisters. She later became part of Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls after marrying country singer Wright in 1937. Wright helped coin her stage name in the 1940’s, basing it on a 19th century folk ballad recorded in the 1930’s by the Pickard Family.