Ramblin' Rhodes: Country star Kitty Wells remembered with fondness

One sunny day in Nashville, Tenn., in October 1973, I was walking downtown on Church Street when I saw a sign in the window of Harvey’s Department Store that caught my eyes.


It said that country music star Kitty Wells was in the records department at that very same time signing autographs.

So I went inside and, lo and behold, there was the Queen of Country Music herself at a table with very few people waiting in line to meet her.

And yet it only had been 20 years earlier that her hit single It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels had made her country music’s first female superstar.

I thought about that initial meeting with her in learning that Wells had died Monday, July 16, of a stroke at her home near Nashville. She was 92.

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

There had been other women with successful country recordings before Wells, including Mother Maybelle Carter and Sara Carter of the 1930s trio The Carter Family, and Patsy Montana, who in 1935 became the first country female artist to sell more than 1 million records with I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.

But it was Wells who became America’s country music sweetheart, racking up hit single after hit single, including Searching, Making Believe, Sincerely and others.

From 1953 through 1962, Miss Wells was voted Cashbox magazine’s top female artist. She was knocked out of that spot 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, the 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, and the two men met 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,” a classic Dylan ballad, Walden said. “He later sent us a cassette of the song, and we recorded it (with Wells).

“That was the days of underground radio, when FM stations were coming into prominence,” Walden added. “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.”

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

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

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

That was just a few days after Wright’s duet partner, 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 of whom were killed in the same plane crash.

Whenever I crossed paths with Wells, which was frequently, she always was the same, sweet person who took her fame and place in country music history in stride.

“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.”

On the eve of Wells’ 66th birthday, I shared supper with Wells and her daughter, Sue Sturdivant, at the old Town Tavern restaurant on Seventh Street at the Levee.

Another friend, Luvin McCoig, had bought Wells a birthday cake, but we discovered the cake decorator had made a slight error.

Instead of a birthday message about “Honky Tonk” angels, the decorator had written “Honky Tonky” angels. The Queen of Country Music thought it was very amusing.

It was great to hear such a great person laugh.


MEETING THE LONE RANGER AND LASSIE: For many years, I had vague memories that I was standing in front of some chicken wire when The Lone Ranger slowly rode up on his horse, Silver, and handed me a silver bullet through the wire. And somehow the famous collie dog Lassie also was there, doing tricks.

That seemed so ridiculous, I thought for sure I must have just dreamed it, but it seemed so real.

Then, several years ago, when The Chronicle opened its deep electronic archives, I started fooling around searching and, lo and behold, found that it really did happen!

In fact, it happened 55 years ago this Friday, on July 20, 1957. I was 11 years old and living on Bel Air Road in Evans, when I was taken to see The Lone Ranger and Lassie at Jennings baseball stadium, then on Walton Way.

It was my mother’s birthday. The Lone Ranger and Lassie made two appearances at 2:30 and 8:15 p.m. Admission was 75 cents for children and 90 cents for adults.

“Each of the children present during the shows will receive a free silver bullet from the Lone Ranger,” The Chronicle reported.

I now remember the bullet as really being aluminum, and I don’t know what happened to it after many family moves.

My guess is that those must have been the first two celebrities I saw in person or at least that I remember.

Don Rhodes: Remembering Kitty Wells