Kitty Wells was the original “Queen of Country Music.”
Kitty, 92, died on July 16, 2012. Today, on the ninth anniversary of her death, it feels like an apropos time to reexamine her trailblazing impact.
While 2015’s Tomato-gate (aka SaladGate) is still probably fresh on your mind, its essence wasn’t fresh at all. Of course, Tomato-gate references radio consultant Keith Hill’s 2015 comments, in which he analogized that male artist were the lettuce (the main ingredient of a salad), while female artist were the tomato garnish.
“If you want to make ratings in country radio,” said Hill to Country Radio Aircheck, “take the females out.”
While Hill’s comments caused a 21st-century uproar, his sentiments sounded just like those from the previous century. In the 1950s, the traditional attitude of the era was that female artists could not sell records, be a force on the charts, or headline shows. Kitty Wells changed all of that.
Honky Tonk Angel
Kitty was born Ellen Muriel Deason on Aug. 30, 1919, in Nashville. She married aspiring country star Johnny Wright in 1937. He formed the duo Johnnie & Jack with Jack Anglin, and Muriel performed as the “girl singer” with the duo on radio shows in the early 1940s. Soon after, Muriel adopted her stage name, Kitty Wells.
By 1952, Kitty was disenchanted with her career and contemplating retirement. However, an executive at Decca Records approach her about recording “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The tune, which was penned by J.D. “Jay” Miller, was an answer-song to Hank Thompson’s 1952 No. 1 hit, “The Wild Side of Life,” which blamed women for male philandering.
Miller—with Kitty’s vocals—turned the tables with the song’s lyrics: “Too many times married men think they’re still single / That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.”
Kitty released the controversial single in June 1952. By August, the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, making Kitty the first solo female to score a country chart-topper.
Country Music’s Trailblazer
Kitty was welcomed into the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. Kitty followed up her chart-topper with a string of Top 10 hits in the 1950s, including “Making Believe,” “Searching (For Someone Like You),” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” among others. She teamed with Red Foley on the 1954 No. 1 hit, “One by One.”
In 1956, at a time when labels were reluctant to allow female artists to release albums, Kitty dropped Kitty Wells’ Country Hit Parade, which featured her biggest hits. In 1957, she released her first studio album, Winner of Your Heart. Kitty had broken the glass ceiling. Soon, other female artists would be given the opportunity to record their own albums.
In 1964, Kitty scored her second solo No. 1 hit with “Heartbreak U.S.A.” Over the course of her career, she charted more than 30 Top 10 hits.
The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Kitty in 1976. She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Remembering Kitty Wells
Without Kitty, we may have never heard of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, or Reba McEntire. Those aren’t just my sentiments. When Kitty, 92, died on July 16, 2012, a host of country’s biggest stars shared their thoughts.
Loretta Lynn: “Kitty Wells will always be the greatest female country singer of all times. She was my hero. If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself.”
Dolly Parton: “Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us. She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business.”
Reba McEntire: “She was a trailblazer for all the women in country music . . . She was my hero. To me, Kitty Wells will always be the Queen of Country Music.”