Don Rhodes: Remembering Kitty Wells

Kitty Wells at award ceremony in 1976

 

Country music legend Kitty Wells never let stardom change her demeanor as she blazed musical trails.

“I’ve tried to be a plain, everyday person,” she once told me. “I’ve never thought of myself as a star.

“The way I live is the way I was brought up – to be an honest, caring person,” she added. “I’ve never tried to change that. You never know who out there is watching you. So you should try to live your life to be an example to someone, and that’s what I tried to do.”

Friends and fans always found her to the same kind and sweet person whenever they encountered her on the road; especially the many times she performed in the Augusta area.

Wells died Monday of a stroke at her home near Nashville, Tenn. She was 92.

Her husband of 73 years, Johnnie Wright of the Grand Ole Opry duo Johnnie & Jack, died last September.

Wells and her husband and his singing partner began coming to Augusta soon after her 1952 single, It Wasn’t God Who Make Honky Tonk Angels, became a No. 1 hit.

They were in Bell Auditorium in May of 1953 with Wells being billed as the “No. 1 Gal Folk Singer.” Also on the show was Marty Robbins being billed as “The Opry’s Newest Sensation.”

One of the most memorable visits was their return to Bell Auditorium in March of 1963.

That was just a few days after Wright’s duet partner, Jack Anglin, was killed in a car crash while driving to a Nashville memorial service for Opry stars Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas; all killed in the same plane crash.

Wells, the first “Queen of Country Music,” dropped out of school in 1934 to work in a Nashville shirt factory.

Born as Muriel Deason, she worked in the Washington Manufacturing Co. for six years until she and her husband moved to Greensboro, N.C., in 1941, with his brother-in-law, Jack Anglin, to try their luck with a radio show on station WBIG.

“Charlie Monroe (brother of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe) and his group already were there, and we thought it might be good for us,” Wright once told me in an interview.

In December of 2000, then 81-year-old Wells and 86-year-old Wright talked with me on the phone from their home; saying they were going to perform their last road show that New Year’s Eve at the Nashville Night Life Club.

I asked Wright if he was going to miss touring and he replied, “I don’t think I’ll miss it, really. We’ve been on the road since 1941. We’re getting off the road on account of me having a hip replacement. We used to work 150 to 200 dates a year, but we averaged about 85 or 90 this year.”

Wright and Wells talked about their long marriage, which took place on Oct. 30, 1937.

“I loved her when I married her, and evidently she loved me, too,” Wright said. “Both of us knew what it was like to work hard when we married. She was working at the Washington Manufacturing Co. folding shirts, and I was working for Davis Cabinet Co. building vanities, bureaus and chests of drawers.”

From Greensboro, the family act moved to Charleston, W.Va., for a radio show on WCHS, then to Knoxville, Tenn. It was about this time that Muriel Deason Wright became Kitty Wells, a name drawn from a Civil War-era song about an old slave who was burying his wife and weeping over the grave of Kitty Wells.

From 1953 through 1962, Miss Wells was voted Cashbox magazine’s top female artist. She was knocked out of that spot in 1964 by Patsy Cline.

One of the most unusual releases in her career came when Capricorn Records, based in Macon, Ga., created a country music division and signed Wells to the label.

Phil Walden, founder of Capricorn Records, told me that rock promoter Bill Graham called him one day and said that folk-rock music star Bob Dylan wanted to meet then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and asked Walden to arrange it.

Walden did just that at the governor’s mansion after a Dylan concert in Atlanta. Back at their hotel after the meeting, Walden told Dylan that he had signed country legend Wells to Capricorn and asked whether Dylan had any songs for her.

“He immediately said Forever Young,” Walden said, adding that it had not yet been recorded by anyone including Dylan.

“He later sent us a cassette of the song, and we recorded it (with Wells),” Walden said. “That was the days of underground radio when FM stations were coming into prominence. One of the biggest kicks I ever got was hearing rock radio stations play back to back Kitty Wells’ version of Forever Young and then follow it with Bob Dylan’s version.”

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