RIP, Kitty Wells: An appreciation of a banned star

RIP, Kitty Wells: An appreciation of a banned star
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By all appearances, she was the sweetest thing in the world, with her affable and rarely rowdy singing voice, her hoedown-ready ginghams, and her marriage to a cabinet-maker when she was just 18, a union that would last nearly 74 years and which would see Nashville undergo multiple musical transitions. But her earliest hit was banned by many country radio stations, and she was initially snubbed by the Grand Ole Opry due to her "risqué" signature tune, a response to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" called "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

When she recorded the song, she had no intentions of making it big as a country star -- she sang it to make the $125 union session paycheck promised her in the spring of 1952. But in the six decades since the song was released, Kitty Wells has proven alongside the likes of Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana and the Carter family women to be one of the groundbreaking female artists of country music, paving the way for everyone from Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker to Miranda Lambert. Wells died on Monday in Nashville from complications of a stroke. She was 92 years old.

Indeed, when you view early videos of her performing, it's hard to imagine that Wells was ever a controversial figure -- she seems to exhibit a bashful unease with being onstage, as if you'd somehow pushed your own dear mother onto the Opry stage to perform for the first time a song she's hummed to herself in the kitchen all your life. Wells had been working as a singer for some time in an era that wasn't amenable to female artists, and was ready to throw in the towel in favor of a career as a housewife when she was asked to record "It Wasn't God," an edgy, early prototype for later songs questioning gender double-standards.

The song was banned by many country stations, for reasons that seem perplexing today, whereas similar songs banned subsequently -- like Loretta Lynn's "The Pill" -- were shunned for reasons that hit all too close to home in today's bass-ackwards cultural climate. But with its lyrics proclaiming, "It's a shame that all the blame is on us women," the song resonated with listeners, and became the first single by a female singer to peak at Number One on the Billboard country charts, remaining in the spot for six weeks. The Opry then reneged on its ban of the song, and offered Wells a membership to its elite lineup.

Wells was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, and in 1991 became the third country artist after Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, and only the eighth woman ever to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Importantly, in 1956 she also became the first female country singer to release a full long-play album, in a time record companies were reluctant to issue albums by women. Imagine if she hadn't paved that road for someone like Patsy Cline, whose first full-length studio album was released just a year later.

Of course, Wells' improbable musical success is a common story among classic country singers. Country music is made up of a slew of unlikely heroes, be they women who strummed out the chords to their first big hit while leaning up against the outhouse between feeding and changing children (Loretta Lynn), women who became well-known as "singing waitresses" working tables when not backing their husbands on major country hits (Bonnie Owens), or who made it big in a short sliver of time between living as an abused housewife/beautician and marrying someone like country great George Jones (Tammy Wynette). And so, it isn't just those who were inspired by Kitty Wells who mourn her passing this week, but also anyone who longs for a time when country musicians were born organically, not manufactured via the latest Idol-style television program.

We'd be remiss not to make mention of that cabinet-maker Wells married when she was eighteen. Her late husband, country great Johnnie Wright, was perhaps as responsible for the success of her career as she was for his, and the two were a beloved couple in country music up until Wright's death last year, paving the way for music couple royalty from George and Tammy to Johnny and June, Tim and Faith to Miranda and Blake.

May your rest be peaceful, Ms. Wells.

"There's Poison in Your Heart"

"Making Believe"

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels"

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