Kitty Wells, Country Superstar, Dead at 92

7:59 PM, Jul 16, 2012   |    comments
  • Johnnie Wright, left, and Kitty Wells play together in front of their museum in Madison, Tenn. on Oct. 27, 1987. (Ricky Rogers/The Tennessean)
  • Country music performers Marty Robbins, Kitty Wells, and Chet Atkins congratulate each other on winning top awards in the National Disc Jockey festival in Nashville in 1957. (Jack Corn/The Tennessean)
  • Kitty Wells performs at the 12th annual Country Music Festival at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville in 1963. (Jack Corn/The Tennessean)
    
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By Dave Paulson
THE TENNESSEAN (Nashville)

Kitty Wells, the "Queen of Country Music" who blazed the trail for female performers in the genre, died Monday at her home at the age of 92 after complications from a stroke.

Mrs. Wells became a groundbreaking force in country music with her breakthrough 1952 hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," the first No. 1 hit by a solo female on the country charts. She went on to be the country music industry's top female vocalist for 14 straight years, with hits including "Making Believe," "Release Me" and "Amigo's Guitar," and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. Throughout her career and 74-year marriage to fellow country star Johnnie Wright, Wells provided a model to which future generations of female country stars aspired.

COLUMN: Still the Queen of Country Music

"Country music lost an icon that we as females in country music hold up," country star Lee Ann Womack said on Monday. "She paved the way for generations after her and really made a mark for women in country. It's a tough business for women. She proved that she could sell records and tickets and have hits in a time when that hadn't been proven yet by female acts."

Born Muriel Ellen Deason in Nashville in 1919, Mrs. Wells was part of a musical family. Her father was a country musician, her mother a gospel singer, and Mrs. Wells embraced music at an early age. As a teenager, she learned to play guitar and began singing with her two sisters and a cousin as the Deason Sisters.

In 1937, at the age of 18, she married Johnnie Wright, beginning a 74-year marriage and musical partnership.

"It was just luck that we met," Wright told The Tennessean in 1995. "I brought my mother and father to visit my sister one Sunday afternoon in 1935. My sister happened to move next door to Kitty's people, and she said, 'There's a girl next door that plays guitar and sings gospel songs.' Two years later, we were married."

It was Wright who gave Mrs. Wells her stage name, which originated from a folk song recorded by the Pickard Family in 1930.
 
Mrs. Wells sang with Wright in several outfits: first with her sister as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls, and later with Wright and Jack Anglin as Johnny & Jack. The latter's performances on the "Louisiana Hayride" radio program led to a deal with RCA Records. Mrs. Wells made a few solo recordings for the label in 1949 and 1950, but didn't land a hit.

By 1952, Mrs. Wells was considering retiring from music to focus on home-making when she was persuaded to record the J.D. Miller-penned "Honky Tonk Angels." The song was a response to Hank Thompson's "Wild Side of Life," and while it borrowed the melody from the recent country hit, its lyrics 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."

Mrs. Wells' song broke onto country charts that summer, and by August, it had knocked "Wild Side of Life" out of the No. 1 slot, making her the first solo female artist to top country charts.

In the wake of Mrs. Wells' success, record labels began signing other women to recording contracts and marketing their singles with the same enthusiasm they'd shown for male artists.

"She was my hero," Country Music Hall of Famer Loretta Lynn said in a release on Monday. "If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don't think I would have been a singer myself. I wanted to sound just like her, but as far as I am concerned, no one will ever be as great as Kitty Wells."

Barbara Mandrell, another Country Music Hall of Famer and a longtime friend of Kitty Wells, also released a statement about her mentor's life and work, "Kitty Wells was every female country music performer's heroine. She lead the way for all of us and I feel very grateful and honored to have known her. She was always the most gracious, kind and lovely person to be around. I so appreciated her being a part of my life and a mentor to me."

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