Another sad loss for music, that of Kitty Wells, unbelievably well into her nineties (only seven years younger than Woody Guthrie in fact). Part of the reason that surprises me is how relatively late she hit stardom, with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” not recorded until 1952 when she was 33; before that she had mainly been other folks’ (notably her husband’s) backing singer.
Her great feminist anthem was written by JD Miller, an incredibly interesting and complicated figure in southern music history, who also wrote “I Hear You Knocking” and “I’m A Lover Not Fighter”. It was an answer song to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life“. It was Paul Cohen of Decca who encouraged her to record it, the man more than any other responsible for what we think of as the Nashville sound. A Jewish New Yorker, he had moved from WSM Radio’s Studio B in 1945 and opened his own studio at the Tulane Hotel in 1947. He helped develop the careers of Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Brenda Lee, Red Foley and Ernest Tubb, one of the handful of Jewish record men important in the emergence of modern country music from its hillbilly roots.
Wells’ second hit was also a feminist answer song, to Webb Pierce’s “Back Street Affair”.
Arguably, Kitty Wells’ impact on country music was as significant as that of almost any artist between Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. By proving that women could sell records in the genre (little accepted at the time), she paved the way for Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Her songs also dealt with the serious realist topics that Hank Williams’ had, and raised the standards for songwriting in the period.
Myself, I am especially fond of her truck driving songs, like this one: