Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


WELLS, Kitty

(b Muriel Ellen Deason, 30 August 1919, Nashville TN; d 16 July 2012, Madison TN) Country singer. She sang in church as a child, began playing guitar at 14; sang on WXIX Dixie Early Birds show '36 and married Johnnie Wright '38, who suggested the name change (from Carter Family's 'I'm A'Goin' To Marry Kitty Wells'). She raised a family, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry '47, recorded for RCA, switched labels and joined the Opry '52 when her first Decca record was the first no. 1 country hit by a female artist since Billboard charts began: 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels' was an answer song, to Hank Thompson's 'Wild Side Of Life', by J. D. Miller), eventually sold a million (it was also an example of dignified feminism, though the bra-burners of the '60s probably never heard of it). Nobody knew it was going to be a hit, but it convinced record company executives that maybe they should take a look at female country singers. Every woman who's had a country hit since then owes something to Kitty Wells.

'I Don't Want Your Money, I Want Your Time' was also an answer, to a hit by Lefty Frizzell 'If You've Got The Money I've Got The Time'. There was little chance of Wells crossing over to a pop audience: influenced by Molly O'Day, she sang in her Tennessee accent with an untrained country vibrato, but integrity, sincerity and the choice of good songs led to over 50 country hits in '50s-60s (25 in the top ten), over 450 singles and 40 albums released by '73: she became the acknowledged Queen of Country Music. 'Paying For That Back Street Affair' '53 was probably an answer to the Webb Pierce hit; 'Makin' Believe' '55 was no. 2 (song by Jimmy Work, who had his own hit version on Dot '54, covered by Emmylou Harris '77), backed with 'Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On', co-written by Wells/Billy Wallace; 'Searching' '56 was no. 4, song by Pee Wee Maddux, backed by 'I'd Rather Stay Home', by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant: her B sides were always worth a listen; several hits were two-sided: 'Lonely Side Of Town'/'I've Kissed You For The Last Time' '55; 'Repenting' (by Gary Walker) backed with Don Robertson's 'I'm Counting On You' '56; 'She's No Angel' backed with Don Gibson's 'I Can't Stop Loving You'. 'Jealousy' '58 made pop Hot 100; 'Amigo's Guitar' '59 co-written with John Loudermilk; 'Heartbreak U.S.A.' was no. 1 country hit '61. She had hit duets with Pierce, Red Foley (four in country top ten '54-6), Roy Drusky and Wright ('We'll Stick Together' '68, the year of their 30th wedding anniversary).

She was part of the Johnnie and Jack show until Jack's death ended that successful duo; after his name had been mispelled many times, Johnnie gave up and adopted 'Johnny', and the Johnny Wright/Kitty Wells Family Show was syndicated on TV. She appeared on TV's Ozark Jamboree, Carl Smith's Country Music Hall, Jimmy Dean's show, Johnny Carson's Tonight show, many others; also film Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar. Despite having signed a 'lifetime' contract with Decca '59, she left the successor company MCA and made an album Forever Young '74 on Capricorn (title song by Bob Dylan). She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame '76. Son Bobby Wright became a singer and actor; see also Johnnie and Jack. She won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement '91; she and Johnny operated a County Junction souvenir shop in Nashville. LPs and compilations on MCA, Vocalion included Dust On The Bible '59; also The Golden Years on Rounder; Greatest Hits compilations on Step One, The Golden Years (1949-1957) on Bear Family LPs '87 included the RCA tracks, with a bonus EP nearly 100 selections, superseded by The Queen Of Country Music 1949-58 '93 on CD.