This column was first published on May 12, 2012.
By Peter Cooper
THE TENNESSEAN (Nashville)
Sixty years ago. May 3, 1952.
That's the day that Kitty Wells walked somewhat reluctantly into Castle Studios, accompanied by a band that featured her husband, Johnnie Wright, on a big, aluminum upright bass.
By the time Wells walked out of the studio that day, she'd recorded two minutes and 33 seconds of material that would change the course of country music, make possible the careers of Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and many others, and create a spot for Wells as one of the pioneering figures in country music.
The song she recorded that day - the song that changed everything - was called "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."
It was an "answer song" to Hank Thompson's monster hit "Wild Side of Life," with an identical melody to Thompson's tune (and to Roy Acuff's "Great Speckle Bird," and to a Carter Family tune) and lyrics that turned the gender tables: Where "Wild Side of Life" blamed a carousing woman for a man's sorrow, Wells' version blamed men for "every heart that's ever broken."
At the time, Wells was considering retiring from music in favor of full-time homemaking. After all, solo female country hit-makers were as common as 7-foot jockeys. Plus, answer songs were seldom as popular as the hit they answered, and the whole recording session seemed at best superfluous and at most foolhardy.
But Decca Records A&R man Paul Cohen had pitched the J.D. Miller-penned "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" to Johnnie Wright when Wright's Johnnie & Jack duo was playing the Ernest Tubb Record Shop's Midnite Jamboree down on Lower Broadway.
The Tubb shop opened - coincidence alert - on May 3, 1947, and the Jamboree was a weekly gathering place for country stars and fans. Cohen figured Wells' emotional, tremulous voice could work for this answer song, and Wright convinced his wife to record it by reminding her that she'd get $125 to sing on the session.
Even today, $125 for 2½ minutes of work isn't bad at all.
Wells' song broke onto country charts that summer, and by August, it had knocked "Wild Side of Life" out of the No. 1 slot. Kitty Wells had become the first solo female artist to top country charts, and "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" was a blockbuster of the sort that tends to dissuade any notions of quitting the business.
Wells would go on to score smashes including "Making Believe," "Release Me" and "Amigo's Guitar," and she was the country music industry's top female vocalist for 14 straight years.
For Wells, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" was a career-saving song. For country music executives, it was proof that a solo woman could, indeed, spur record sales.
Labels began signing other women to recording contracts and marketing their singles with the same enthusiasm they'd shown for male artists, and if the whole thing didn't quite work out to equality, it at least forged possibility.
"All of a sudden, she spoke to a whole psyche," Emmylou Harris told Mary Bufwack, who co-authored Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music with husband Robert K. Oermann. "She was the perfect representation for that particular time. She really paved the way for a lot of women to get on that bus and ride on down the road."
Wells is now 92. She's a Country Music Hall of Famer known as "The Queen of Country Music" (though she's also the quietest, humblest royal in town), and it's difficult to imagine what country music might have been without her and the song she recorded 60 years ago.
Click below to see a gallery of Ernest Tubb Record Shop over the years (this 1965 photo: Joe Rudis / The Tennessean):
It's also tough to figure what country music would be like without the Ernest Tubb Record Shops and the weekly Midnite Jamboree, a show that has beamed from WSM radio's 50,000-watt AM signal since Tubb opened his business in 1947. Tubb's first store was at 720 Commerce St., but in 1951 he moved to the store's current headquarters at 417 Broadway.
Tubb's retail goal was to provide country records to fans, both via mail order and at the store (a location near the Ryman and the weekly Grand Ole Opry meant country fans were in abundance downtown), and that mission has endured over the years, as shellac discs became vinyl records, as vinyl ceded to cassettes and CDs, and even now in the digital age.
Tubb also sought to spotlight talent, which is where the Midnite Jamboree came in. Tubb, Hank Snow, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Bill Anderson, Connie Smith, Charley Pride, Garth Brooks and, of course, Kitty Wells have all appeared on the show, which is the second-longest, continually running live, popular music show on American radio, behind the Grand Ole Opry.
Johnnie Wright is gone now, as are Castle Studios and Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells has finally retired from singing. David McCormick now runs the Tubb Shops' four locations, priding himself on carrying the most complete selection of country CDs, DVDs, books and new vinyl records available, and on employing people knowledgeable about the music: Founding BR549 member Gary Bennett and recording artist Jessica Stiles are but two of the folks often found behind the Tubb counters in Nashville, on Broadway and at the Music Valley Drive location.
This weekend, the Tubb Shops will celebrate their 65th birthday with special shows featuring Leon Rhodes (of Tubb's Texas Troubadours) and Tubb's nephew, Glenn Douglas Tubb. Wells won't be doing any public celebrating, but perhaps she'll take a moment to ponder the events of 60 years ago, the music she's made since then and all that it has meant to generations of fans and performers.
And if she doesn't stop to think of all that, perhaps we can. Thanks a lot, Ernest Tubb. Happy birthday, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." And long live the Queen of Country Music.