NASHVILLE -- Before Kitty Wells, men didn't just rule the roost in country music, they owned it.
It wasn't until her 1952 hit, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," that a solo female country singer had a No. 1 record.
The song, written by a man, was a rebuttal to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life." It made Wells a star and dashed the notion that women couldn't be headliners.
Until then, most "girl singers," as they were called in country music, were either paired with men, such as Rachael Veach with Roy Acuff, or were members of a family group, such as sisters Sara and Maybelle Carter with the Carter Family.
Wells' success also encouraged Nashville songwriters to begin writing from a woman's perspective. Before then, women had a hard time finding material and often had to change the gender in the lyrics.
Wells, now 89 and the subject of a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said she never considered the song political or daring and didn't think of herself as a feminist. To this day, she still doesn't know what the fuss was all about.
"I never really thought about being a pioneer. I loved doing what I was doing," she said recently.
Wells' song eclipsed Thompson's in popularity, reaching No. 1 in the summer of 1952 and staying there for six weeks.
"That really opened doors for other women," said exhibit curator Mick Buck. "Kitty set a new precedent."
The multimedia exhibit traces Wells' career, from singing with husband Johnnie Wright's duo, Johnnie & Jack, to her 35 Top 10 hits and retirement in 2000. It includes her guitars, stage costumes, awards, photos and posters.
Her career cooled by the mid-1960s as a new wave of women singers emerged, some of whom would further challenge gender roles with edgy songs such as "The Pill." Her last single on the charts was in 1979, though she, Wright and their children continued to tour as a family act until 2000.