With the grace and good humor that have marked their shows for 60 years, Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright performed their farewell concert on New Year’s Eve at the Nashville Night Life club. Country music’s most revered couple played to a full house of fans, family and friends that included Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Leona Williams, Larry Stephenson, Tommy Cash, Jack Greene, Jean Shepard and comedian/impressionist Johnny Counterfit.
In a program that lasted just over an hour, Wells, 81, and Wright, 86, offered a fair sampling of their own standards and shared the spotlight with guest artists Bill Phillips and Charlie Rogers. Backing the singers were Wells and Wright’s band, the Tennessee Mountain Boys, which featured Ray Kirkland on bass and vocals; George Edwards, steel guitar; Larry Nutter, lead guitar; Allen Funderburk, drums; and WSM disc jockey Eddie Stubbs, fiddle. Son Bobby Wright joined in on guitar and vocal harmonies.
The event was broadcast live on Grand Ole Opry radio station WSM-AM (650).
Wells came on stage after Kirkland warmed up the house with “The Old Man From the Mountain” and “Brush Arbors by the Side of the Road.” Trim and regal in purple and black, the “Queen of Country Music” got straight to business with her taunting 1955 hit, “Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On,” followed by “Makin’ Believe” and “Searching (For Someone Like You).” Then, with Kirkland and Nutter as harmony supports, she sang “Amigo’s Guitar.”
As is her custom, Wells said little between her songs, barely alluding to the significance of the special occasion. She completed her set with “Thank You for the Roses,” “How Far Is Heaven” and the tide-changing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” the Queen beamed as the crowd snapped to its feet and cheered.
Johnny Wright, who is recovering from a hip replacement operation, ambled on stage with a cane, looking more mischievous than wounded. Wells and Bobby Wright joined him to kick off his segment of the show with a frenzied, needle-to-the-peg version of Johnnie & Jack’s 1958 hit, “Stop the World (And Let Me Off).” (Wright and Jack Anglin launched Johnnie & Jack as a recording duo in 1947 and kept it intact until Anglin’s death in a car wreck in 1963.)
In true show business fashion, Wright transformed his age and infirmities into comedy material. “We’re going to do one of the songs we recorded in 1900,” he said, introducing the 1951 classic “Ashes of Love.”
When the song was over, two messengers came to the stage to hand the startled headliners five dozen roses. The flowers were accompanied by a note that said: “This is the saddest news we’ve heard all year long. This old road won’t be the same without all of you. A rose for every year that you’ve been out there is such a small way to say thank you. Thanks so much for all the years. Our best to you and for you in the future.” It was signed “Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens.”
Wright introduced “Down South in New Orleans” with a story: “[Jack Anglin and I] was down in New Orleans, Louisiana. We stayed down there about a week just by ourselves, me and him, on a vacation. We was trying to come up with a new recipe for Kitty’s cookbook. [Wells has by now compiled three popular cookbooks.] There was a lot of these girls down there, and I saw one who really looked sharp. She was a good cook.”
Taking a break, Wright sat back on a stool and called out Bill Phillips, who toured with the show from 1969 to 1984. Phillips led the audience in a high-spirited rendition of “Wabash Cannonball,” while Wright urged Wells, unsuccessfully, to sit on his knee. Phillips concluded with “Murder on Music Row,” clearly a crowd favorite. He was followed by Charlie Rogers, a singer who used to hire Wells and Wright for his club, who sang “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Wright returned to the microphone to front the group in “(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely,” a 1954 hit for Johnnie & Jack. “I’m going to tell you the life history of Kitty and myself,” Wright said, noting that he and his wife had just celebrated their 63rd anniversary. “We got married in 1937 on Halloween night. Kitty said getting married on Halloween — she didn’t know whether she got tricked or treated. She got tricked. We’ve had a wonderful life … We stayed on the road for years and years and then came home and just looked at each other … All the kids, we see twice a year, Christmas and Thanksgiving. We don’t see them no more until the next year. That’s lucky.”
The two retiring road warriors, Wright continued, now take comfort in watching television. “She’s crazy about that Matlock. I hate him. Every day, she’s got him on. She turns it up so loud. I like Murder, She Wrote. I told her, ‘Now you can get mad if you want to, but I’m going to watch Murder, She Wrote.’ She said, ‘If you do, you’re going to go upstairs.’ We don’t have an upstairs … I’m getting hard of hearing, and she’s not a whole lot better. I looked at her the other day, and I said, ‘Honey, you know what? I’m proud of you.’ And she said, ‘What did you say?’ I said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I’m tired of you, too.’”
Wright took time out to praise Eddie Stubbs, who fiddled with the Tennessee Mountain Boys before moving on to become one of the most respected and tradition-minded disc jockeys in country music. Stubbs returned to the band for the farewell. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to Nashville, I’ll tell you that,” Wright asserted. “He plays everybody['s records] equal. He don’t leave anybody out. He plays the music we was raised up on. I hope it never dies out, and it won’t as long as Eddie Stubbs is in Nashville.”
Before Stubbs slashed into the old fiddle tune “Bile Them Cabbage Down,” Wright recalled for the crowd his earliest memories of the song. “I’m from Mt. Juliet [a Nashville suburb], and I was about 11 years old the first time I ever remember listening to the Grand Ole Opry — on a crystal set. You put headphones on, and you listened. Uncle Jimmy Thompson [the first performer on the show that would become the Grand Ole Opry] used to come by the store over there where I was raised up, and he had a woman with him called Becky Bruce. She was a sister of George Wilkinson of the Fruit Jar Drinkers … Uncle Jimmy had this little old Ford truck, and he’d come in and get this fiddle out. He had whiskers way down to here. He’d fiddle, and that woman would start dancing … and I’d get out there and start dancing too … He always played ‘Bile Them Cabbage Down.’”
Following that hoedown number, Wells, Wright and company sang “Let Us Have a Little Talk with Jesus.” Then, John Lester, from Rocklands Entertainment of Peterborough, Ontario, presented the two entertainers with a plaque. Rocklands has been their exclusive promoter in Canada for the past 20 years. The plaque’s inscription read, “In recognition of 20 years of music, 492 shows, thousands of dedicated fans and over $2.3 million in ticket sales in Canada.”
“Johnny,” Lester added, “if you ever decide that retirement’s not for you, give us a call. We’ll just do it all over again.”
Wells and Wright put a cap on the evening by singing their prophetic 1968 hit, “We’ll Stick Together.” Then they walked out of the spotlight. Together.