In a year when Kid Rock seems to be becoming a welcome alternative to many young aspiring country singers, I start rethinking some things. And they all have a way of going back to realness. Not just reality. But real-ness. As in grit. True grit.
I think that’s what Kid Rock is. That also brought up in my mind a country singer who isn’t mentioned much these days but who made a mark because of her real-ness, in an era when that was unlikely. And that’s Kitty Wells. She and Kid Rock are alike in one regard: Each is an original and each became an unlikely country success. And each has, I think, a bit of a lesson for today’s country.
Kitty Wells deserves every female singer’s thanks. Not just female country singers. But female singers, period. Madonna. Mariah Carey. Amy Winehouse. If it weren’t for a few pioneering women like Kitty Wells or Hazel Dickens … many or most of these women singers would still be waiting in line behind all the cute, young dudes. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that women country singers were routinely referred to and labeled as “girl singers.”
Kid Rock is what a lot of young aspiring country singers want to be. The rebel. The wastrel. But you can’t act that. You can’t pose that. You either are that or you aren’t. The distinctive country stars of today don’t have to try to be something or somebody. They are who they are, whether it’s George Strait or Alan Jackson or Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw or Keith Urban or Toby Keith or whomever. They know who they are, and they sound like who they are. That’s why they have huge followings. They have an identity and a style. That’s why fans love them.
Kid Rock has had some country hits because he too has something to offer country fans that they’re not getting from anybody else. And he’s not posing. He is who and what he is. And he’s writing direct and simple songs. They work. I’m not saying he’s what all country music should be, because he’s not. But he’s got more of the spirit and fire of the traditional country music soul than a whole lot of the young new candidates I see trotted out on a regular basis. Kid acts like he doesn’t give a damn. And he doesn’t, about a lot of things that more conventional people do. But he does care, about things like paying careful attention to songwriting and recording and performing. That’s why his current CD Rock N Roll Jesus sold over 100,000 copies last week, 45 weeks after it was released. That’s more than any country album can manage to sell in a week these dark days.
As for Kitty Wells, she’s been on my mind ever since I toured her new Queen of Country Music exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s a fitting tribute, one that traces her pioneer’s progress from 33-year-old housewife and mother to overnight country star.
Back when women in country music were not supposed to be heard above a respectful “Yes sir, I’ll get your coffee now,” Kitty Wells was standing up to be heard.
As a result, Patsy Cline could also stand up and be an individual and a star, and so could Tammy and Dolly and Loretta and Barbara and Trisha and Patty and Lee Ann and LeAnn and Carrie and Taylor. And so on.
Wells’ Hall of Fame exhibit is more about her modesty and her gingham dresses than about sequins and flash, but she got her message across in a very large way in 1952.
Her massive hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” more or less blew the barn doors wide open. At the time, Wells was an unassuming “girl singer” for her husband Johnnie Wright’s duo of Johnnie & Jack. When they were on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La., she was sidelining as “Rag Doll,” a radio disc jockey and seller of quilting supplies. Her husband had changed her real name of Muriel Deason to a new stage name of Kitty Wells, taken from an old sheet music title. When Johnnie & Jack moved to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, she had been recording with no real success. But she cut an answer song to Hank Thompson’s huge 1952 hit, “The Wild Side of Life.” She was initially hesitant to cut the song, written by J.D. Miller, but was convinced by the $125 session fee. She was not put off by the song’s directness and bluntness about cheating. It was not a view that women in polite society were expected to voice publicly.
The song countered Thompson’s story line of “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels” with her answer song and its initial release sold more than 800,000 copies. It became the first Billboard No. 1 hit for a female country artist. Women listeners responded in a big way. It was a song with a strong backbone and a fierce, if understated, attitude.
The lyrics confronted Thompson’s song with such replies as: It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels/As you said in the words of your song/Too many times married men think they’re still single/That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.
The song was so controversial for the time that both the NBC radio network and the Grand Ole Opry banned it. So, it worked. And women were heard. If you look at the Billboard top country artists chart of the 1940s, there were no women in the Top 20. For the 1950s, Kitty Wells weighed in at No. 10. In the 1960s, Wells was No. 11 and Loretta Lynn appeared at No. 15. For the 1970s, Wells had dropped away from the chart, but Dolly Parton, Lynn, and Tammy Wynette were solidly in the Top 10 and Lynn Anderson made the Top 20.
Wells continued on with a steady country music career of touring and later cut an album for the rock label Capricorn Records that is a pleasing amalgam of country, rock and R&B. She wonderfully covers both Otis Redding and Bob Dylan but still sounds like the thoroughly country Kitty Wells, with that trademark piercing voice. It’s an album I still play. Forever Young was recorded with leading Southern rock musicians. And it still sounds like a genuine original. A lot of people didn’t like it and still don’t. But it makes a statement. She has got that independent streak, quiet as she is.
And Kitty Wells is still very much a Nashville presence. And a good influence. We should introduce her to Kid Rock.