NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Kitty Wells Remembered

How Country Music's First Feminist Changed the World

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Her legacy will always be her shattering of the glass ceiling for aspiring female country singers, but Kitty Wells lives on in a number of ways and in the work of many other women.

Back in the early 1950s, the ceiling wasn’t actually glass for aspiring women country artists, as much as it was gingham. Because modest gingham dresses were what country “girl singers” were expected to wear.

Kitty didn’t think it was out of line back then for her to speak up. Sometimes what turns out to be the loudest voice is actually the quietest one. Wells was always quiet, demure and soft-spoken. But she became country music’s first feminist.

In the summer of 1952, the former Ellen Muriel Deason was 33, married to country singer Johnnie Wright and was a mother of three. She also, as “Kitty Wells,” was the “girl singer” in her husband’s group, Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. The role of the girl singer was to mainly adorn the stage and help out with occasional vocals. Wright gave her the professional name Kitty Wells, after an old song by the Pickard Family.

In 1949, she had been briefly signed to RCA Records and released two singles. Neither of them — “Death at the Bar” and “Don’t Wait for the Last Minute to Pray” — had any chart success at all, primarily because of record label promotion men’s reluctance to work with women artists. RCA dropped her.

In 1952, she had decided to quit the road and stay at home and concentrate on being a homemaker and mother. Then Paul Cohen of Decca Records offered her a chance to record a new song he was considering, called “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Wells later said she decided to do it only to get the $125 union scale that she would be paid for the recording session.

That year, as was usual, the Billboard country chart’s No. 1 songs were all by male artists, such as Hank Williams, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell and Eddy Arnold. The Texas honky-tonk singer Hank Thompson had a large hit with “The Wild Side of Life” earlier in the summer. The song was a classic apologia for married men having affairs with honky-tonk angels, who received all the blame.

Wells’ response song to that was her historical breakthrough hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The song borrowed Thompson’s melody, which in turn was borrowed from the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” as well as from Roy Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird.” It strongly answered Thompson’s song:

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

Ironically, it was written by a man, J.D. Miller, to be sung from a woman’s point of view. It soon became the first ever No. 1 country hit by a woman artist, standing up to the world of men. That was a brave song for a fledgling country woman artist. Her high, almost girlish vocal delivered the message that women need not be submissive to men.

And it helped change the face of country music. It was No. 1 for six weeks. It went on to sell over 1 million copies. So, it proved that women could sell records and have hits. It forced record labels to rethink their position and become more woman-friendly. The next year, 1953, saw No. 1 songs come from the women artists Goldie Hill and the Davis Sisters.

After it crossed over into pop music, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was banned by the NBC networks for being “suggestive,” and Wells wasn’t allowed to sing it on the Grand Ole Opry for the same reason. It was threatening the traditional social order. Men cheated, and women were supposed to close their eyes to such indiscretions. Wells continued to dispute that assertion in sometimes controversial follow-up songs, such as “Paying for That Back Street Affair,” a response song to Webb Pierce’s “Back Street Affair.” She deflected most criticism of that by dressing demurely onstage in her trademark gingham dresses. She also became the first woman country artist to have a syndicated television show.

Roy Acuff, the heralded King of Country Music, advised Kitty’s husband that women artists couldn’t and shouldn’t try to headline shows.

My personal favorite Kitty Wells performance is her recording of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” on the album of the same title. In 1975, after parting ways from her longtime record label home of Decca Records, when hits didn’t come anymore, she signed with the rock label Capricorn, home of the Allman Brothers and other Southern rock standouts.

“Forever Young” has such a brave and moving vocal from a woman who was completely unsure of her place anymore in the country music firmament. The album is a charming statement, with such unlikely Wells covers as Dylan’s song and Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The album was not a commercial success. As with many such ventures, it simply puzzled her traditional fans and attracted no new audience from the rock world. Forever Young turned out to be Wells’ last studio album.

After Wells’ recent death, women singers from Loretta Lynn to Lee Ann Womack to Dolly Parton lauded her as their hero and cited her role in paving the way for them and giving many, many women the chance to become full-fledged artists and perhaps even country stars.

One of the most eloquent Wells tributes, though, came when she was still alive in 2011. Laura Cantrell paid homage to her with the tribute album Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music, a collection of classic Wells songs. Cantrell is a New York City country artist who appreciated Wells perhaps more than Nashville did when Wells’ hitmaking days were over.

Cantrell wrote the title song for the album, and it’s an eloquent tribute song, with lyrics reading in part:

Kitty Wells’ dresses
Modest and sweet
Gingham and ribbon
Tied up so neat
Every girl’s dream
From five-and-dime fabric
Robes of the queen