It was 1952, and I was 10. My father, a son of the South, had the AM country music station on whenever we went anywhere in the car, and often on in the house before the one-eyed monster arrived in Tampa in 1953. That’s when Lucille Ball and Milton Berle replaced Eddie Arnold as Dad’s entertainment of choice. (I’m not sure this was a trade that benefited both sides.)
Along with Arnold, Roy Acuff, Tennessee Ernie, and Hank Williams Sr., that year there were plenty of repetitions of Kitty Wells singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” (Actually, I’m pretty sure it was. But it was a good song anyway.) Country music was still called hillbilly back then. But it was making its way from the hollows, bayous, mountain trails, and lower forties into town, and toward the respectability and popularity it would later earn.
There have been plenty of country goddesses since then — Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Reba McIntire, Dolly, et al. But as Aaron notes below, Wells, with “Honkey Tonk Angels,” was the first woman with a number one country hit.
Wells was hardly a goddess. She had a plain singing style. And she was distinctly not center-fold material. But she helped pave the way for later women country music artists. “Honky Tonk Angels” gave the woman’s view of the wild side of life, and its success gave country songwriters incentive to write songs from the woman’s perspective on life and love and longing.
Her other hits included, among some long and deservedly forgotten numbers, these country classics: “Making Believe,” “Release Me,” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Wells was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and in 1986 received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award.
Kitty Wells died Monday in Nashville from complications from a stroke. She was 92. R.I.P.