Kitty Wells, who died Monday at age 92, was born in Nashville to a family of country musicians, and within that simple truth lies a fascinating narrative. Her story spans nearly a century, and its central plot points involve not only busting apart notions of a female singer's place on the radio but also Wells becoming a reasoned foil to the male-dominated singers occupying the charts.
"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," Wells' 1952 hit that was her first and most important, was as brash and defiant for its time as more celebrated musical revolutions to come involving Elvis Presley's thrusting hips and the Beatles' rock expansion. In its own wink-as-you-slap way, "Honky Tonk Angels" was a great big No to the idea that the staple country narrative of a lover gone bad was strictly for scorned men.
Wells ultimately generated 35 top 10 hits and charted a total of 81 songs over 27 years (her last was in 1979), a career that spanned her early years as part of the singing Deacon Sisters in the late 1930s through her retirement in 2000 after touring with her husband of 74 years and children as the Kitty Wells-Johnnie Wright Family Show.
FOR THE RECORD:
Kitty Wells: In the July 17 Calendar section, an article paying tribute to country singer Kitty Wells identified her breakthrough 1956 album as "Kitty Wells' Hit Parade." The title was "Kitty Wells' Country Hit Parade." —
But it was her "Honky Tonk Angels" that had the biggest influence. The song has been covered by artists ranging from Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline to L.A. country-punks the Knitters; Wells' definitive version spent six weeks at No. 1.
In hip-hop parlance, you can call "Honky Tonk Angels" a dis track: it's a musical confrontation with another singer and another song — specifically, Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life." Thompson's song was 1952's version of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," , spending 15 weeks at No. 1 from May through mid-August of that year. During those three-plus months, fans memorized the words to "Wild Side," an indictment of a former girlfriend who gives up marriage for the allures of the "wild side of life," and in the process becomes a woman destined to be "anybody's baby." During Thompson's reign at the top, Wells, through songwriter J.D. "Jay" Miller, crafted a response.
Countering the accusation at the center of "Wild Side" as though she's listening to her ex from across the table, Wells sings of sitting near a jukebox that's playing Thompson's song. She hears him blame her for their breakup, indict her for nights spent in "the places where the wine and liquor flow," but she isn't having any of it.
Wells' answer, "Honky Tonk Angels," begins with the same fiddle melody as Thompson's song, but that's where the similarities end. Faster and more musically insistent, Wells responds by dismissing his claim that it's all the gal's fault. Singing in an unwavering tone that his version of the blame game "brings back memories of when I was a trusting wife," she shoots down his arguments one by one. "Too many times married men think they're still single," Wells sings in "Angels," "that has caused many a good girl to go wrong."
Something was in the air that summer. A week before "Honky Tonk Angels" hit No. 1 by defending the character of scorned women, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were in a studio in Los Angeles with Big Mama Thornton recording a similar, if more searing, indictment of male behavior. "Hound Dog," which compared reckless male behavior to that of an animal, went a step further, but the sentiment was the same.
But to reduce Wells to a single song is to risk diminishing both her craft, her artistry and her influence on the evolution of American music. Even before hitting with "Angels," Wells had been a founding member of the "Louisiana Hayride," the influential Shreveport, La., radio show that showcased some of country music's biggest stars, and which in 1954 provided the first national exposure for a young Presley. In 1956, her "Kitty Wells' Hit Parade" was the first full-length album released by a female country singer. Her hits stretched throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and she confirmed for formerly wary label executives that female country singers could hit hard with a good song and do it on a consistent basis. In her music, as in her life, she helped transform the no at the heart of "Honky Tonk Angels" into a proud affirmation of the possible.
A full obituary will appear in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times.