When a queen dies, a nation stops to grieve. For country music, the passing of Queen Kitty Wells was no less of an event, though it feels appropriate to observe it not with pomp and grandiose gestures, but with the far more intimate act of listening closely to a body of music and a life that are striking from a distance — say, emanating from a jukebox, cutting through the din of a honky-tonk — and richly rewarding in their nuances when considered up close.
So far removed are we from the postwar era of the 1950s — and so used to the presence of formidable female voices in the country landscape — that it's hard to fathom a time when there were none to hear, outside of family groups. Says Laura Cantrell, the artist behind last year's loving indie country tribute Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music, "We take it for granted that there would be plenty of songs from a female point of view, but at the time, there weren't."
Wells was the first true country superstar who was also a woman, and the song for which she's best remembered, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," was the first recording by a solo female singer ever to top the country charts. "It's kind of ironic that she was considering retiring and raising her family at the time she recorded [the song]," says John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "In short order, it sells 800,000 copies on its way to a million-plus. It's like, 'OK, if the fans want records and the fans want to see you on the road, then there's nothing to do but go.' "
And go Wells did.
That she gained such towering distinctions in utterly unassuming fashion is a testament not only to her groundedness, but to the way she applied her prodigious gifts and how highly she valued the opportunity to genuinely connect with an audience.
A Nashville native, she wasn't actually born Kitty Wells — a name borrowed from a folk ballad — but Muriel Ellen Deason, into a family that sang for enjoyment and, according to a decade-old No Depression feature by Bill Friskics-Warren, attended the WSM Barn Dance (not yet the Grand Ole Opry) as often as their National Life and Accident Insurance agent could score them tickets.
Wells and a cousin performed on the radio for the first time in 1936, only to have station personnel cut the audio midway through their cover of The Carter Family's "Jealous Hearted Me." It was apparently too racy. The audience, however, disagreed and clamored for more. It wasn't the last time Wells would receive a response from real, live listeners that trumped the industry's conservatism.
Not long after, an aspiring country singer by the name of Johnnie Wright was introduced to the Deasons by his sister, who'd just moved in next door to them. Soon enough, he and Wells embarked on a 74-year partnership in marriage and music that ended only with his passing last September. For the first several years, they primarily placed their hopes in Wright's musical fortunes. His duo with Jack Anglin — Johnnie and Jack — got work on radio stations in North and South Carolina, East Tennessee and Louisiana before returning to Nashville, and the Grand Ole Opry, for good. Besides filling the supporting role of the duo's "girl singer," Wells cut a few gospel sides for RCA, which went nowhere.
By her early 30s, Wells was ready to wash her hands of singing and focus on raising the couple's children. That's when Wright, at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop's Midnite Jamboree, was approached by a Decca A&R man who pitched him a song for Wells. She agreed to record "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" — an answer song to Hank Thompson's hit "The Wild Side of Life" — but only so that she could earn the session fee. Before she knew it, the song was a runaway 1952 hit, the first of more than 30 Top 10s she'd chart into the '60s.
This wasn't only the story of an individual artist's success — this was Wells proving, once and for all, that a woman country performer could hold her own, sell records and headline shows, matters about which plenty of people in the music business had had their doubts. But it's important to remember that she wasn't the only lead character; she and Wright were at the heart of a touring, family-focused team, even more so once Wright lost his duet partner in a car accident. Wells and Wright's years together can be read as a model of mutuality.
Says Cantrell, herself a Nashville native, "I think [Kitty] had a lot of dignity and was certainly proud and aware of the difference between what she had done and what other people had been able to do before her. I think she also understood that her husband's musical career kind of had to be sidelined in order for her to be maximized. They chose to do that in a partnership, and she seemed to always want to bring attention back to him and his talents. ... I think we struggle as women — because we want a feminist hero — to say, 'Well, actually, he should get a lot of the credit.' I think that's a complication in touting her greatness which we shouldn't worry about."
Though "feminist" is a descriptor that people frequently attached to Wells' big hit in our time, it's not an identity that she ever claimed for herself. Without a discrete category to lean on, we must confront her in her admirable complexity: a woman of her time, speaking to the realities of her time with no-nonsense emotional intelligence and a profound gift for empathizing with people and stories that lay beyond her own experience.
"She wasn't a honky-tonk angel," says Robert Oermann, who co-wrote Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music with his wife Mary Bufwack. "She was very much a housewifey kind of personality, a wife and mother, who spent her whole career in a very traditional family setting, albeit as an entertainer."
You can feel the empathy in Wells' voice on her many shuffling, fiddle- and steel-sweetened, Owen Bradley-produced Decca sides. With rawboned warmth, she extends her heart, straight and true, but never forgets herself, never quite gets to the point of revealing everything. Says Oermann, "There's so much pent-up intensity in her voice. That's what I find so involving about listening to her."
Wells sang about the sweetness of love, marriage and parenting, as well as the deep emotional tolls of cheating, manipulation and divorce. You'll find no more heart-rending song sung from the perspective of a mother accused of infidelity and separated from her child than "Mommy for a Day." This was not the work of someone disengaged or faint of heart.
"She could get away with it," says Rumble, "precisely because she dressed so conservatively ... in gingham and puffed sleeves and rickrack and long skirts, and was so obviously a devoted wife and mother with a stable marriage to Johnnie Wright."
Oermann admires the grace with which Wells navigated her Southern context, particularly that of conservative Nashville. "I think the interesting thing about being a Southern woman of that era is that contradiction, both the femininity and the strength that were expected," he says. "She embodied both of those things. Always an incredibly gracious, kindly, feminine presence, and yet with this incredible, powerful message and voice."
It's a marvelous thing that Wells lived to see her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and the museum exhibit of which she was the subject in 2008; in the case of the latter, she was the first female country act to be so honored. Many musical generations of women have followed in her footsteps since the early '50s. If today, general knowledge of her music tends to be limited to her blockbuster breakthrough song, it may be because her influence is so foundational that it's ceased to be consciously recognized; people have forgotten about the solid rock on which so much has been built.
Opry announcer and WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs — who came to Nashville because of Wright and Wells' treasured friendship, and their offer of a fiddle-playing gig — would, no doubt, concur. "Loretta Lynn has professed since day one of her career that Kitty Wells was her favorite female singer," he wrote to the Scene in an email. "Interestingly, how many Loretta Lynn fans have taken the time to study what her primary influence was, by way of Kitty Wells?"
Cantrell recorded her album of Wells songs precisely so that people would have the chance to hear them, and how powerfully direct they are, once again. But the title track, "Kitty Wells Dresses," is a new composition. In it is a little phrase that captures the tangible, approachable, daily dignity of what Kitty Wells sang and how she sang it, the way she carried herself and even those long, gingham dresses she wore: "From five-and-dime fabrics, robes of a queen."