Kitty Wells, the long-reigning “Queen of Country Music” and the first woman to reach No. 1 on the country chart with her attitude-changing hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” died Monday at age 92 of complications from a stroke.
Wells was the most successful female singer of the 1950s, one of a small handful of women to have significant impact in country in an era when the music was overwhelmingly dominated by men.
“She was the undisputed queen of country music,” singer Marty Stuart said Monday. “There’s more to being a queen than just calling yourself a queen -- it’s a title that goes with an entire lifetime of service and influence. You check the careers of anyone in this town [of Nashville], and you won’t find anyone with a more spotless career than Kitty Wells.”
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Wells laid a template for female singers in country music that started a shift in traditional male-female roles in rural America with “Honky Tonk Angels,” a strikingly assertive response to Hank Thompson’s masive 1952 hit “The Wild Side of Life,” in which a man laid all blame on his a woman he meets in a honky tonk for breaking up his marriage and returning to “where the wine and liquor flows, where you wait to be anybody’s baby.”
Wells, singing a song written by J.D. Miller, shot back, “It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels/As you said in the words of your song/Too many times married men think they’re still single/That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.”
That recording was No. 1 for six weeks in 1952, and it began a string of hits that extended to 1979.
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The stern resolution Wells gave voice to would be echoed in subsequent recordings by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and still ripples today in assertive songs by Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood.
Wells continued to have an active role at the Grand Ole Opry long after country radio stopped playing her music. She placed 81 records on the Billboard Country Charts from 1952 through 1979, mostly as a solo artist but also in duets with her husband, Johnnie Wright, her daughter Carol Sue and several with singer Red Foley. Wright died last year at age 97. Wells was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.
A full obituary will appear in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times.
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