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6:06 pm
Mon July 16, 2012

Kitty Wells, Pioneering Country Singer, Dies

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 7:29 pm

Kitty Wells revolutionized country music by becoming its first big female solo star. Wells died today at home in Nashville, Tenn., of complications from a stroke. She was 92 years old.

Wells sang about the real problems of postwar life and the sad side of domesticity, like divorced mothers without custody in the 1950s. Robert Oermann, who co-wrote a book about the history of women in country music, says Wells was a pioneer.

"There had been females in country music from Chicago and the West Coast and from Atlanta," he says. "But Nashville and the South — there women were pushed to the background."

Wells was born in Nashville to musician parents. She quit high school to work in a shirt factory, but she eventually wound up on the radio with her singing sisters. In 1952, she shattered the rules of country music with one song she recorded as a demo: "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

The song made her the first woman to score a solo hit on the top of the country charts. It even crossed over to the pop charts. But it was seen as incredibly controversial. The song defended women's behavior in the face of cheating men. The country music establishment was horrified, says historian Mary Bufwack.

Wells was herself quite conservative. She was not a showy or sexy performer and early on put her career aside to be with her family. She told NPR in 2008 she did not think of herself as a feminist.

"I really didn't think too much about it because I was always pretty natural with the way I felt and carried myself," she said. But after her hit, as she tells it, "Capitol Records got to recording the girl singers and so now we've [got] as many girl singers as men singers."

One of them is Emmylou Harris, who says before Kitty Wells, it was considered unseemly for a woman to get on a bus with a bunch of men to tour. "She really paved the way for a lot of women to get on that bus and ride down the road."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The queen of country music has died. Kitty Wells was a country superstar. She revolutionized that musical genre by becoming its first female solo star. Wells died at home in Nashville today due to complications from a stroke. She was 92 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMMY FOR A DAY")

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Kitty Wells sang about the sad side of domesticity, taking on topics like mothers without custody in the 1950s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMMY FOR A DAY")

KITTY WELLS: (Singing) I got to see my little girl each Sunday afternoon, and how I dread the words I know she'll say.

ULABY: Wells sang about the real problems of postwar life, says writer Robert Oermann. He co-wrote a book about the history of women in country music, and he says Wells was a pioneer.

ROBERT OERMANN: There had been females in country music from Chicago and from the West Coast and from Atlanta and other country music capitals, but Kitty came along when Nashville and the South were becoming the capital of country music. And there, women were very much pushed to the background.

ULABY: Wells was born in Nashville. Both of her parents were musicians. But she quit high school to work in a shirt factory. She eventually wound up on the radio with her singing sisters, but she shattered the rules of country music with one song she recorded as a demo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT WASN'T GOD WHO MADE HONKY TONK ANGELS")

WELLS: (Singing) It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels.

I recorded it in May in 1952. After the song made the hit, I had to go back to work.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: That's Kitty Wells on NPR two years ago. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" made her the first woman to score a solo hit on the top of the country charts. It even crossed over to the pop charts. But the song was seen as incredibly controversial. It defended women's behavior in the face of cheating men, and the country music establishment was horrified, says historian Mary Bufwack.

MARY BUFWACK: There were more divorces in the postwar era than the United States had ever seen. There was more delinquency. There was more smoking. So it looked like moral decay.

ULABY: Wells herself was quite conservative. She was not a showy or sexy performer and, early on, put her career aside to be with her family. She told NPR in 2008 she did not think of herself as a feminist.

WELLS: I really didn't think too much about it because I always, you know, was pretty natural with the way I felt and the way I, you know, carried myself around. And, of course, after I made the hit with, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," well, Capitol Records got to recording the girl singers, and so now we've got just about many girl singers as there are men singers.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: One of those singers is Emmylou Harris, who says before Kitty Wells, it was considered unseemly for a woman to get on a bus with a bunch of men to tour.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: She really paved the way for a lot of women to get on that bus and ride on down the road.

ULABY: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, K.D. Lang - every woman working in country music today is riding down the Kitty Wells memorial super highway. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKING BELIEVE")

WELLS: (Singing) Making believe that you still love me. It's leaving me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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