Country music lost a true legend and pioneer yesterday with the passing of Kitty Wells, just a few weeks shy of 93. She died peacefully at her home in Madison, Tennessee, after suffering complications from a stroke.
Wells’ historical significance to country music – particularly to women in country music – certainly cannot be overstated. She became the first female artist in history to score a number-one country single with her landmark 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” It was an answer song to the Hank Thompson hit, “The Wild Side of Life,” and is one of only a few answer songs to nearly eclipse the song it responded to. The song made such a bold, controversial statement at the time that it was banned from a number of radio stations.
Wells was a consistent presence on the country charts from the early fifties to the late sixties – the only consistently successful female artist in country music at the time. She became the first female country artist to release her own full-length LP with her 1956 release Country Hit Parade. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, and was its oldest living member for the last few years of her life. Because of her many unique accolades and accomplishments, Wells is often referred to as the Queen of Country Music.
Barbara Mandrell, to whom Wells was a mentor as well as a personal friend, issued the following statement yesterday:
“Kitty Wells was every female country music performer’s heroine. She led 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.”
I know I sure did love Kitty Wells’ music, and still do. I always found her performances to have a simple, unadorned sincerity about them that’s become rare in recent years. She truly sounded like one who meant every word she sang. In addition, I have long had a special appreciation for the many talented women of country music, which causes me to hold Kitty Wells in particular regard as the one who laid the groundwork, and provided inspiration for the generations of female talent that followed in her footsteps. Country music has a long and illustrious history of outstanding, gifted, and at time outspoken female artists – from Dolly and Loretta to Patty and Trisha – and it all goes back to Kitty Wells. Better yet, she taught them to sing what they believed in, and not to be afraid to ruffle a few feathers. It’s difficult to imagine what the story of country music would have been without her.
Thank you, Kitty Wells. Rest in peace.
Kitty Wells performs her signature classic, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Kitty Wells performs “Making Believe,” a 15-week #2 hit in 1955 (revived by Emmylou Harris in 1977).