Kitty Wells: Singer known as 'The Queen of Country' who opened up the genre to women

 

Kitty Wells, "The Queen of Country Music", was the genre's first great female star. If, ultimately, her career was inexorably bound up with that of her husband, Johnnie Wright, she nevertheless opened an important door for the generations of country ladies who have followed; her success allowed them to make the female voice in country music a prominent one.

Today, young women like Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert arguably dominate the industry, but for the first 30 years of its commercial history country was largely a wasteland for female performers. Patsy Montana, Texas Ruby and a handful of others had made small inroads, but it wasn't until Wells' breakthrough with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" (1952) that the situation began seriously to change.

Penned by JD Miller while driving home one day in his native Louisiana, it was written as an "answer" to Hank Thompson's then current hit "Wild Side of Life". Sung from the point of view of a "victim", Miller's song put the blame for "women gone bad" firmly upon unfaithful men. In both perspective and attitude the song was revolutionary and Wells and others would capitalise on it in a big way.

She had enjoyed little success prior to cutting the disc and had done so primarily for the session fee. It was only when talking on the telephone with Hank Williams' wife, Audrey, some months later that she realised that, although banned by some radio stations, she had a massive hit on her hands; it sold over a million copies.

In its straightforward, uncluttered arrangement the song would prove very typical of the scores of Wells' hits that followed. Her voice – direct, unmannered, gospel-inflected and free from artifice – was ideally suited to the often downbeat songs that she tackled, from Jimmy Work's seminal "Making Believe" (1955) to "Mommie For A Day" (1959) and Harlan Howard's "Heartbreak USA" (1961). Emmylou Harris later noted, "How do you explain Kitty Wells? You just have an emotional reaction to her. I always wanted that kind of voice." She was, Loretta Lynn declared, "The best!"

One of the few country stars actually to have come from Nashville, she was born Ellen Muriel Deason and grew up on a farm a few miles west of the city. Her father, Charles Deason, was a sometime brakeman on the Tennessee Central Railroad who liked to pick and sing folk songs, and as a youngster she would accompany her mother to see the popular Grand Ole Opry. She learned to play guitar and sang in church.

Having dropped out of school at 15 she went to work in a garment factory, managing to find time to perform alongside her sisters Mae and Jewel, and her cousin Bessie Choate as the Deason Sisters on radio station WSIX. Their first appearance, singing "Jealous Hearted Me", was cut short by a programme director who believed its lyrics to be too suggestive.

At 16 she met a cabinet-maker and aspiring musician, Johnnie Wright, and two years later, on 30 October 1937, they eloped. With Johnnie's sister Louise they formed a trio, Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls but with success proving elusive, Ellen turned increasingly to domestic life; in 1939 she gave birth to their first daughter, Ruby. By now paired with his brother-in-law Jack Anglin, Johnnie was leading an outfit known as the Happy Roving Cowboys and they headed east, finding temporary homes with radio stations in Greensboro and Charleston.

Ellen was still an intrinsic if minor part of the show, and when Anglin was called up in 1942 she again found herself working with her husband. It was at Knoxville, appearing on WNOX's famous Midday Merry-Go-Round with future guitar great Chet Atkins on fiddle, that she adopted a stage name. The show's emcee Lowell Blanchard had been impressed with her talent but thought her name unmemorable and it was at his prompting that "Kitty Wells", inspired by the folk song "Sweet Kitty Wells", was chosen.

In 1947 Johnnie and Jack headed for Shreveport, Louisiana where they and Kitty performed on the weekly Louisiana Hayride and where she briefly hosted her own show. Sessions in 1949 and 1950 for RCA produced a handful of impressive cuts including "Gathering Flowers For The Master's Bouquet" and "Death At The Bar", but had little impact. It was Decca supremo Paul Cohen who suggested she give "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" a shot, and she cut it, backed by Johnnie and Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys, in May 1952.

She followed it with another "answer" song, "Paying For That Backstreet Affair" (1953), a response to Webb Pierce's chart-topping "Back Street Affair" of the previous year. A duet with Red Foley, "One By One", topped the country charts in 1954 and he became a regular partner ("As Long As I Live", 1955, "You And Me", 1956) as did Pierce ("Oh, So Many Years", 1957, "Finally", 1964). Other notable hits – she had over 80 – included, from the pen of a young Don Everly, "Thou Shalt Not Steal" (1954), "There's Poison In Your Heart" (1955), "Lonely Side Of Town" (1956), "Searching" (1956), a cover of the Don Gibson standard "I Can't Stop Loving You" (1958), the sublime Latin-flavoured "Amigo's Guitar", "Left To Right" (both 1960), her final chart-topper, "Heartbreak U.S.A. (1961) and "Password" (1964).

Signed to a lifetime contract by Decca in 1959, she nevertheless moved to Capricorn in 1975, an experiment that produced an album, Forever Young, on which she was backed by members of the Allman Brothers Band and which, in truth, worked for neither party. Later discs for Ruboca and Step One were more stylistically sympathetic, if not particularly successful and it was with the former that she made her final chart appearance, a cover of "Wild Side Of Life" (1979).

Throughout, Wells had remained a popular live act, touring with Johnnie and combinations of their children, daughters Ruby and Carol Sue and, most notably, son Bobby, appearing at London's Wembley Festival. She and Johnnie performed their final concert together at the end of 2000. In 1976 she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and in 1991 received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

Ellen Muriel Deason (Kitty Wells), singer: born Nashville, Tennessee 30 August 1919; married 1937 Johnnie Wright (died 2011; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Madison, Tennessee 16 July 2012.

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