Don Rhodes: Remembering Kitty Wells

AP
Kitty Wells in 2009
  • Follow News

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

Kitty Wells at award ceremony in 1976  AP
AP
Kitty Wells at award ceremony in 1976

“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.”

Comments (11) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
Jake
32345
Points
Jake 07/17/12 - 12:25 pm
2
0
A Honky Tonk Angel

Sorry to hear of her passing. The oldtime Opry legends seem to be almost all gone except for Little Jimmy Dickens. On the "Mother's Best Flour" CD's with Hank Williams, he has a show in 1951 with Johnny & Jack on it. On that show he talks to them about the old days up on Cado Lake and how good a cook "Kate" (Kitty) was.
I saw her at the Columbia County Fair back in the early 80's and she still sounded very good. Rest in Peace Kitty.

David Parker
7923
Points
David Parker 07/17/12 - 12:29 pm
2
0
Favorite Kitty Wells

"Making Believe"

Thanks Don for writing on her life. She was quite a gift to country music.

seenitB4
85748
Points
seenitB4 07/17/12 - 01:15 pm
2
0
Lady

A very special lady.....adored by many in Nashville...I still love to hear her music....just like Patsy Clines music. RIP dear lady.

Little Lamb
45360
Points
Little Lamb 07/17/12 - 01:18 pm
1
0
Forever Young

Thanks, Don, for providing that story about Forever Young. I heard her version of the song one time on WPLO radio in Atlanta. When I heard it, the Bob Dylan version had been out for quite a while, so I never knew that she released it before Dylan.

I saw the Kitty Wells show at Julian Smith Casino in the late 1980s. Her husband sang Ashes of Love (a Johnnie & Jack hit), and her son, Bobby Wright, sang his one hit, Pledging My Love.

Of course Kitty Wells sang many of her hits, but the song I remember the most is one I had never heard (and have never heard since the concert). I've looked for the song on every Kitty Wells CD I came across in the stores and catalogs, and I've never seen it. The song was Thank You for the Roses.

Don Rhodes
4
Points
Don Rhodes 07/17/12 - 03:55 pm
0
0
Here it is, Little Lamb:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiskU6vP7MY

Thank You For The Roses
Thank You For The Comments
I think Bob may have had Forever Young out on an album, and Phil may not have known that. Either way, Kitty had the first single release of it.

---- Don

Little Lamb
45360
Points
Little Lamb 07/17/12 - 04:16 pm
0
0
Thanks

Thank you, Don, for the link. I have a tendency to avoid youtube, but I need to get brave and become familiar with it.

. . . . . and the memories that the roses bring.

I love that song. I'm going to transcribe it and learn how to play and sing it. There's a little string section in the recording, so it must have come later in her career. Another youtube photo showed a 45 rpm label dated 1979, and cited the song's composer as Jim Anglin.

And again, thank you, Don, for writing about country music.

Little Lamb
45360
Points
Little Lamb 07/17/12 - 04:51 pm
0
0
Forever Young

Forever Young was released on Bob Dylan's Planet Waves album in the mid-70s when he was having his dispute with Columbia Records. It was released on a different label (Elektra, I think — although wouldn't it be cool if he was on Capricorn at the time!)

Anyway, the version on Planet Waves featured The Band as back-up musicians and had a nifty chorus.

Later on, Forever Young was released on Dylan's famous Biograph album on Columbia. This time, it was a rough demo featuring only Dylan on vocal and acoustic guitar. The chorus was missing in the demo. Kitty Wells’ version had the chorus, I'm pretty sure (as I said above, I heard her version only one time while driving around Atlanta in the car).

Jake
32345
Points
Jake 07/17/12 - 06:03 pm
0
0
LL

youtube can be a great source of entertainment. The only problem is when I search for something, and find it, I also find myself looking at many other things related to it and end up spending more time on the site than I had intended.

TrulyWorried
13541
Points
TrulyWorried 07/18/12 - 12:13 am
0
0
Kitty Wells

May she rest in peace - a wonderful entertainer and true to her roots.

playlikethunder
88
Points
playlikethunder 07/18/12 - 08:22 am
0
0
The Undisputed Queen of
Unpublished

The Undisputed Queen of Country Music....God Bless her and keep her.
Don, thank you for your exeptional way of writing these articles. I have been a fan of your writing since I was 16. You once did a nice write up of a band I was in , and it was a great thrill for us to be noticed by you.
Whenever we lose someone like Miss Kitty, I always think of the song,"Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes?".....and I wonder.

Little Lamb
45360
Points
Little Lamb 07/18/12 - 09:57 pm
0
0
Music

I listened to some of my Kitty Wells CDs last night. I have only her early ones. Reading the musician credits, I was struck by two things. On her recording of Release Me from 1954, the guitarist was Chet Atkins (the greatest guitarist to me). On her recording of I Can't Help Wondering from 1958, the guitarist was Hank Garland. He was quite talented, and very tasteful in his playing. Unfortunately, his career and life had an edge of sadness to them. There is a Hollywood movie about his life out there. I saw it on HBO a year or so ago. I think the movie is called Crazy (after the Willie Nelson penned song, probably), and the movie is quite good.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Oooops — I corrected the date of the Release Me recording, and I corrected the title of the 1958 recording. Both are quality recordings you might want to add to your MP3 collection from iTunes.

Don Rhodes
4
Points
Don Rhodes 07/18/12 - 04:34 pm
0
0
To playlikethunder and Little Lamb

PLT: Thank you for your very warm comments. I'm assuming you must be 18 now since you have read me since you were 16. (Just joking). What band did I profile that you played in? I love it when I discover great people I've never heard of and right now blues-soul Sharon Jones and 24-year-old singer/songwriter Carey Murdock of North Augusta, Blue Rodeo band of Canada, Ed Romanoff of New York City who I recently wrote about, all are high on my list of discoveries within the past three years.

Little Lamb, you are definitely right about Hank Garland. I had no idea until recently how many major hit records he played on including I think most of Elvis' movie tracks. It's easy to say so many entertainers are tortured souls, but then again I remember songwriter/singer Bill Anderson telling me one time, "If I had lived all that I've written about in my songs, I would have been dead a long time ago." There were few tortured souls like Roy Orbison who went through so many personal tragedies in his life, and yet he came across as a pretty normal guy. His last act was playing with model airplanes with Jean Shepard's husband, musician and his road manager Benny Birchfield.

Back to Top

Search Augusta jobs