Kitty Wells, the preeminent female country vocalist of the 1950s, died in Nashville on Monday. She was 92.
She was the first of a breed: The late historian Charles Wolfe wrote that Wells’ ’50s recordings on Decca “defined, in essence, the role of women in modern country music, and opened the classic honky-tonk style of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams to new subtleties and new perspectives.”
In 1952, Wells’ third recording session spawned “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” an answer song to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” a No. 1 country mega-hit that March. Wells’ single also topped the chart for six weeks and began a run of 33 top-10 hits for the singer through 1965.
She was born Ellen Muriel Deason in Nashville. Her family was musical, and when she was a girl, her mother took her to the Grand Ole Opry’s live broadcasts, which at the time featured just a handful of women, none of them stars.
She and her cousin Bessie Choate began performing as the Deason Sisters in the mid-’30s and had their own radio show on WSIX, which was competing with the Opry’s home, WSM, for listeners.
Soon, the young singer was involved professionally and romantically with Johnnie Wright, a Tennessee-born vocalist five years her senior, in his group Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls. The couple married in 1937. In the early ’40s, Wells took her stage name from an old folk song popular on the Opry.
Wells was signed to RCA in 1949, but her early singles failed to make any impact in a market where male vocalists remained dominant. Meanwhile, her husband’s duo Johnnie and Jack, a partnership with singer Jack Anglin, began to attract attention and roll up hits on the same label.
However, Wells’ fame quickly eclipsed that of her husband after she cut “Honky Tonk Angels,” a song by Louisiana cleffer J.D. Miller that affixed modern lyrics parrying Thompson’s song to a Carter Family melody. Reluctantly recorded at her first session for Decca for union scale of $125, the tune vaulted her to instant stardom.
Songwriter Tom T. Hall noted, “Kitty was the first lady to come out and tell her side of the story about honky tonking and cheating and those kinds of things.”
Wells enjoyed a nearly unbroken string of popular singles during the ’50s, both on her own and partnered with male labelmates Red Foley and Webb Pierce. Until the advent of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn in the late ’50s and early ’60s, she had little competition for chart supremacy among other members of her sex.
Her hits included the answer songs “Paying for That Back Street Affair” (No. 6, 1953) and “Hey Joe” (No. 8, 1953), “Release Me” (No. 8, 1954), the Foley duet “One by One” (No. 1, 1954), her definitive version of Jimmy Work’s “Making Believe” (No. 2 for 15 weeks, 1955) and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (No. 3, 1958). Her last No. 1 single, “Heartbreak U.S.A.,” came in 1961, though she continued to record for Decca, in a sleeker “Nashville Sound” vein, until 1973.
One of Wells’ last high-profile major label appearances came in 1974, when Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records issued “Forever Young,” which featured the veteran singer backed by members of the Allman Brothers Band, the label’s top rock act. The title track was a Bob Dylan cover.
Managed as ever by husband Wright, with whom she started an independent label and country museum, Wells continued to tour until her retirement in 2000. Wright died in September 2011.
Her industry honors included induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and a 1991 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy.
Survivors include her daughter Carol Sue and son Bobby, both of whom were active in country music.