The Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells, died Monday (July 16) at her home in Madison, Tenn., at age 92.
Her husband of more than 70 years, country singer Johnnie Wright, died Sept. 27, 2011, at age 97.
Wright essentially managed his wife’s famous career and made her the feature attraction as the Kitty Wells-Johnnie Wright Family Show. In many ways a reluctant star, Wells became the first female country artist to find consistent success, beginning with her huge 1952 Decca hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Hence her near-universal acclamation as the Queen of Country Music, a title bestowed on her years before the 1960s heyday of women singers in the field, including Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and others.
One of the few early stars native to Nashville, she was born Aug. 30, 1919, as Muriel Deason. She dropped out of school during the Depression to take a factory job, but with two sisters and a cousin sang as the Deason Sisters on Nashville radio station WSIX. In 1937, the 18-year-old Deason married Wright, a fellow Nashville radio hopeful, who immediately put his new wife into his act (along with his sister Louise) as Johnnie Wright & the Harmony Girls.
Soon Wright added a brother-in-law, Louise’s husband Jack Anglin, to the troupe, and in that era of duet acts, they became the featured tandem, Johnnie & Jack. Anglin’s military service in World War II only interrupted their long march to stardom by way of such places as Charleston, W.Va., Knoxville, Tenn. and Shreveport, La. The duo finally got a second shot at Nashville’s prestigious Grand Ole Opry in 1952 on the strength of their RCA Victor hits “Poison Love” and “Ashes of Love.”
By this time, Muriel Deason Wright was the mother of three children — Ruby, Carol Sue and Bobby — but she remained in the touring act, even recording gospel and heart songs in 1949 and 1950 for RCA Victor under the name she’d been given in Knoxville — Kitty Wells. (The name came from the title of an old Pickard Family recording.) Her RCA records didn’t sell, and it was only with repeated pleadings that Johnnie Wright convinced Decca Records producer Paul Cohen in 1952 to give Wells a chance on that label. Wells agreed to try it mainly for the $125 session fee. (Johnnie & Jack and their Tennessee Mountain Boys also earned a few dollars as the session band.)
The featured song of that May 1952 session at Nashville’s Tulane Hotel was J.D. Miller’s answer to Hank Thompson’s red-hot “The Wild Side of Life.” Expressing the age-old woman’s point of view that cheating men are responsible for fallen women, the song was “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” (Thompson’s chorus said, “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels.”) Wells’ record sold some 800,000 copies in spite of — or perhaps because of — being banned from play on the NBC Network and hence from live performance on the NBC-affiliated Grand Ole Opry.
Soon enough, Wells recorded more hits of plaintive heartbreak from the woman’s point of view, many dealing quite frankly with modern social problems in the process: “Release Me,” “I Heard the Juke Box Playing,” “I Gave My Wedding Dress Away,” “Making Believe,” “Paying for That Back Street Affair,” “Your Wild Life’s Gonna Get You Down,” “Mommy for a Day” and “Heartbreak USA.” Wells’ plaintive, heartfelt singing voice proved the perfect vehicle for this type of song, suitably framed in most cases by Shot Jackson’s crying steel guitar. (He normally played Dobro on Johnnie & Jack’s sessions.)
Usually dressed in the billowy gingham of a bygone era, Well’s stage presence and her quiet, happy family life seemed to belie so many of her hit song themes — most often the pain and heartbreak of weak, sinful, sometimes worldly-wise and often victimized womanhood. Never eloquent discussing her success, Wells would just demurely smile or defer to Wright when questioned about such an obvious contrast while taking the money to the bank as sums from record sales and touring which very soon dwarfed that initial $125 recording session fee.
By the mid-1950s, Wells also scored duet hits with the field’s biggest male stars — Decca labelmates Red Foley (“One by One” in 1954) and Roy Acuff (“Goodbye Mr. Brown” in 1955). For a time, Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys toured with Johnnie & Jack, Wells and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. (What could be more natural than the pairing of the King and Queen of Country Music?)
Still, it was Acuff who at one point advised Johnnie Wright against making Kitty Wells his headline act, telling him, “Women can’t headline a country music show.” Acuff’s observation echoed another erroneous piece of traditional wisdom — that women singers couldn’t sell country records. Before long, the field boasted a veritable galaxy of headline female stars, like Jean Shepard, Patsy Cline, Skeeter Davis, Loretta Lynn, Melba Montgomery, Tammy Wynette, Norma Jean, Dolly Parton and Jan Howard. Wells’ success had changed the face of country music forever.
Of her 84 singles which charted in Billboard magazine, 38 made the Top 10. Her last major hit came in 1971, but she recorded for years afterwards, leaving Decca/MCA for a short stint on Capricorn Records before settling onto the family-owned Ruboca label.
Jack Anglin’s tragic death in a 1963 auto accident turned Wright into a solo singer, while the couple’s son, Bobby Wright, had the most success of the children, both as a country singer and as an actor, working in the ’60s as a cast member of the popular McHale’s Navy TV show.
Wells was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. In 1989, she recorded the “Honky-Tonk Angels Medley” with K.D. Lang, Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee, her final major recording project and a Grammy-nominated performance. In 1991, she was presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award — the first female country star so honored and only the third country artist who had received the honor (after Roy Acuff and Hank Williams).
Wells and Wright still played selected dates in the late 1990s and performed their farewell concert on Jan. 31, 2000, in Nashville.
Funeral services will be held Friday (July 20) at 1 p.m. at the Hendersonville Church of Christ in Hendersonville, Tenn.