The county music community lost one of its most beloved pioneers with the death of Kitty Wells. Known as the “Queen of Country Music,” Wells, 92, died of complications from a stroke at her Nashville home on July 16.
“In my lifetime I’ve worked hundreds of shows with Kitty Wells and I have never failed to see her entertain,” Grand Ole Opry legend Jimmy Dickens says. “She represented the regular housewife, and simplicity was the answer to her success. Country music will never be the same without her.”
Born Ellen Muriel Deason on Aug. 30, 1919, the Nashville native was the first woman to have a No. 1 country song when “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” hit the summit on Aug. 23, 1952, and stayed there for six weeks. Wells scored 35 top 10 singles between 1952 and 1965 with three tunes reaching No. 1. Her final top 10 was “Meanwhile, Down at Joe’s” in 1965. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.
Wells began her career in her teens, performing on a Nashville radio station with her siblings, Mae and Jewel, and cousin Bessie Choate as the Deason Sisters. At 18, she married aspiring country musician Johnnie Wright, who would go on to achieve success as part of the duo Johnnie & Jack with Jack Anglin. Wells performed as part of the Johnnie & Jack show and it was her husband who suggested her stage name, a moniker culled from an old folk song titled “Sweet Kitty Wells.”
Wells began recording for RCA in 1947, but after a few years became discouraged and considered quitting the business to stay at home with her three children. Then Paul Cohen, an A&R executive for Decca Records, coaxed her in the studio to record “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a rebuttal to Hank Thompson’s hit “The Wild Side of Life.” In the chorus Wells declared, “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 initially banned by many stations and from the Grand Ole Opry. By attacking the male/female double standard, Wells opened the door for female country artists to speak their mind, paving the way for Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and all who followed.
Wells served as an inspiration and mentor to many in the country community. “Kitty Wells and her husband, Johnnie Wright, brought me to Nashville in March of 1995 to play fiddle for them,” Grand Ole Opry announcer and WSM Nashville air personality Eddie Stubbs says. Stubbs recalls Wells as the epitome of poise, professionalism and dignity.
“Kitty Wells possessed each of these traits at the highest level,” Stubbs says. “What she did for country music has been well-documented. We can only hope that those in the industry who don’t know, and those yet to come, will study her history, learn from the recordings and apply it to their music. Equally important should be a mandatory study of her character, the manner in which she lived her life both professionally and privately.”
Wells and Wright remained married until his death on Sept. 27, 2011, at the age of 97. The couple recorded and toured together extensively throughout the years. In 1979, they formed their own label, Ruboca Records, named after their children, Ruby, Bobby and Carol Sue. They opened the Family Country Junction Museum and Studio in 1983 and operated it until 2000. That same year they announced their retirement and performed a final show at the Nashville Nightlife Theater on New Year’s Eve.
The family’s studio remains open. “Her father worked for the railroad,” says Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys, “so when she built a recording studio in the back of her hall of fame in Madison, Tenn., she called it Junction Recording Studio to pay tribute to her father . . . I remember going to that studio and walking into her hall of fame. Her collection of accomplishments was amazing.”
Wells received the Recording Academy’s Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Recording Industry in 1981. In 1985 she was honored with the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award and in 1991 received a lifetime achievement Grammy.
Lynn paid tribute to Wells on her website. “If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself,” she wrote. “I wanted to sound just like her, but as far as I am concerned, no one will ever be as great as Kitty Wells. She truly is the Queen of Country Music.”