As one of the two parents of rock ‘n’ roll (the other is rhythm and blues), country music understandably has had a considerable impact on the younger genre, and it’s no surprise that 10 country artists are enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not enshrined there, however, is the country star who arguably had the greatest single impact on the evolution of rock: Kitty Wells.
We’ll come back to why that’s the case, but for the time being let’s note that, though little known to people under the age of 60, even country fans, she’s quite possibly the most influential country artist ever, save only Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (in that order). Her sobriquet “the Queen of Country Music” was amply earned.
Wells’ significance is not that she was country’s top-selling female solo artist for 12 consecutive years, though no woman (nor any man) has ever ruled the charts for so long, but that she was its first. There had been female country singers before her, but no woman had sustained a solo career in country—those who had attained any kind of longevity, notably Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter, had done so as members of family groups or as band vocalists.
When Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” blazed across the country horizon in 1952, it was more than the first No. 1 song on the country charts sung by a woman. It was a clarion call telling the world that country was no longer a closed shop. Wells was signed by Decca Records and started cranking out a series of hits that lasted into the late 1960s, but hot on her heels were the likes of Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, all of whom pointed to Wells as a central influence. Less than 30 years later, on April 26, 1980, seven of Billboard’s Top 10 country hits were by women, including all of the Top Five.
There were bigger stars than Wells, before, during and after her years at the top, but it’s hard to argue that even Hank Williams had so great an impact. Had Williams not existed, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks surely would have been country stars; without Wells, it’s possible that Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire and Taylor Swift wouldn’t have been.
Wells’ story is a great one, but that isn’t to say that any book telling it will be a great book. Walt Trott’s The Honky Tonk Angels (Nova Books, 1993) is apparently the only full-length treatment of Wells’ career, and it’s actually a joint biography of Wells and her husband, Johnny Wright, himself a country star best known as half of the duo Johnny and Jack. Trott, a veteran Nashville music journalist, knows his subject matter well, but the book itself is long, disorganized and not very strong either in writing or editing. It is not without interest—the story is still worth telling—but one can’t help wishing that a better writer, such as Williams biographer Colin Escott, would tackle Wells’ story.
Wright’s story, which is largely that of Johnny & Jack, isn’t devoid of interest—or of irony, since the act was broken up when Jack Anglin was killed in a car crash on his way to Patsy Cline’s funeral. It’s fairly typical of the era, however, and it’s unlikely that anyone ever would have thought of writing a Johnny Wright biography. I can’t help thinking that Trott made Wright his co-subject only because that was what it took to get her husband’s blessing for Wells to participate. The result is that a sizable chunk of Trott’s 300 pages is devoted to accounts of Johnny & Jack recording sessions and the ups and downs of their career—with some interesting anecdotes along the way, but nonetheless a massive detour from Wells’ career, which is of far greater interest.
I count myself a Kitty Wells fan, but I have to admit that her work isn’t for everyone. Her voice is nasal and somewhat piercing, more like Hank Williams’ penetrating bray than the lush fullness of such successors as Cline and Lynn. She recorded some great songs—understandably, since for several years she was the only major outlet for songs written to be sung by women—but many of them are better known today in subsequent covers. Two of her greatest songs, “Making Believe” (1955) and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1958), are most often heard in Ray Charles’ versions from Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962).
Moreover, while Wells was pivotal in the history of feminism, her songs have a tone much different than that of contemporary country feminism. Before her a woman’s perspective was seldom to be found on the country charts—unsurprisingly, songs about a woman that begin “She” have a different tone than ones that begin “I”—but she didn’t write her own songs (almost all of her hits, including “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” were written by men), and the songs she sang were mostly about long-suffering women victimized by cheating husbands, sexist bosses and the trials of being a woman in a man’s world. Few of her songs have the bravura combativeness of Lynn, Parton or such latter-day country women as Tanya Tucker or Miranda Lambert.
Wells herself realized this, and defended her choices by emphasizing that, as a pioneer, she had to walk a narrower path than the ones available to her successors. Launching her solo career in an age in which country music was seen as unsavory and any women who were interested in it as immoral, she couldn’t afford to be a rebel. The suffering-martyr songs she sang were like the gingham housedresses she wore onstage, reassurances to men (and to conservative women) that she wasn’t there to set men straight, to take their jobs, to steal women’s husbands or to upend the social compact. She wore sensible shoes, not boots—and, if she had worn boots, they wouldn’t have been made for walking.
By 1980 Wells’ songs seemed as old-fashioned as those dresses. Cline had put on evening gowns and cowgirl suits, Lynn had worn high heels and Tucker had shown plenty of skin and not thought twice about it. There was a flamboyance, an anger and an unashamed sexuality to the work of those singers, and others such as Lynn Anderson, Jeanne C. Riley, Jean Shepard and Tammy Wynette, that was utterly foreign to Wells’ persona. Her occasional attempts to sing that type of song never clicked, and in live performance (she toured regularly until 2000, when she and Wright both retired; she was 81) her fans wanted to hear the old hits, not newer, edgier material.
Beyond her 12-year reign as queen of the country charts, which has never been rivaled, let alone surpassed, Wells also excelled most of her successors offstage. Reading the life stories of Lynn, Wynette, Tucker and the others (as I recently have been in Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann’s Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000) is appalling. Like their less-acclaimed predecessors in previous decades, their biographies are a litany of failed marriages, spousal abuse, drug and alcohol problems, managerial fraud and premature death; the angry, agonized songs that they sang came easily to them. It often seems as if personal tragedy was and is an essential part of success as a female country singer.
Wells, on the other hand, seems to have avoided such troubles. Reading between the lines, Trott’s book makes clear that Wright was a controlling husband who was stung by the sudden emergence of his wife as a solo artist far more prominent than he ever managed to be, and that he ran her personal and professional lives with an iron hand (he even named her, after one of his favorite folk songs). However, Wells doesn’t seem to have minded, and she and Wright were married—to all appearances entirely happily—for 73 years. Their marriage worked when both were unknown, when he was a rising star and she an unknown, when she was a superstar and he largely washed up, and when both were largely superseded by new generations of stars. If she had any problems with drugs, violence, alcohol or adultery outside of her songs, they never became public.
I don’t listen to Kitty Wells’ music that often, though the Bear Family Records set The Queen of Country Music (1994) is an admirable collection of all her recordings from 1949 to 1958 (it seems that a successor, taking the story through 1990, will not be forthcoming, which is a pity). Lynn and Swift are my favorite country women, with Cline, Parton and the lesser-known but still terrific Wilma Lee Cooper and Rose Maddox also on my list.
I come back to Wells, though, because she’s the only female country artist (other than Sara and Maybelle Carter, of course) who capture the feel of the country that I love best, the unabashedly rural, uncomplicatedly sentimental music of Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and Hank Snow. Cline threatened Wells’ throne and Lynn toppled her, but both were more show biz and less country than Wells would ever be; enveloped in the Nashville Sound, they were casting their eyes on the pop charts as much as the country ones.
Kitty Wells was born Ellen Muriel Deason in Nashville. That was in 1919, when Nashville was the capital of a rural state, the Grand Ole Opry was still six years in the future and nobody had ever heard the phrase “Music City.” To the end of her life, Wells sounded like she came from there and then, and that wasn’t a bad thing.
Afterthought: I wrote above that Wells was “the country star who arguably had the greatest single impact on the evolution of rock.” This is bound to be controversial, since few rock stars, classic or current, have been meaningfully familiar with her work (except for Elvis Presley, who opened for her in his early days and, to the end of his life, always called her “Miss Kitty”), but I’ll stick to it.
It’s probably not fair to blame Wells for not having broken through to fame in, say, 1947 instead of 1952, but arguably rock would have been very different if she had. Rock ‘n’ roll’s emergence from country dates from mid-1954, when Presley broke through with “That’s All Right,” though it took Billboard some time to acknowledge that there was something new going on, and Presley, Carl Perkins and other early rockers initially toured alongside country acts.
The country that they emerged from was still an almost-entirely-male preserve—Wells was already recording for Decca, but Cline, Lynn, Parton and the wave of female country stars that followed were still a few years out. Unsurprisingly, rock became almost entirely a boy’s club; Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee were around the fringes, but they were always as much country as rock and, by the mid-1960s, they were back in the country fold.
If Wells had broken through five years earlier, though … If Presley, Perkins, Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly, who all grew up dreaming of country stardom, had been joined by a wave of women who shared that dream … if rock had grown out of a country that already had made room for women as stars … what might the future have been like?
On April 26, 1980, seven of Billboard’s Top 10 country hits were by women, including all of the Top Five. That same day, only one of the magazine’s Top 10 rock hits was by a woman, Blondie’s Debbie Harry. If seven of them had been by women, including all of the Top Five, what might today’s rock sound like?