Originally created 12/08/00

Ramblin' Rhodes: Kitty Well's long road finally ends



Two of the greatest performers in country music, 81-year-old Kitty Wells and her 86-year-old husband, Johnny Wright, will retire from road shows after performances on New Year's Eve.

Their last show is set for Dec. 31 at the Nashville Night Life club off Music Valley Drive.

"I don't think I'll miss it, really," said Mr. Wright in a recent telephone interview from his Nashville-area home. "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.

"It may be the end of our touring, but we might possibly work a casino or some other special dates now and then," he added. "We sold our museum (in Madison, Tenn.) a couple of months ago. We're going to have an office in our home now where we mostly will sell albums and other things on the Internet (www.kittywells.com). My daughter Sue runs that."

Minnie Pearl arguably was country music's first female star, beginning with her 1940 comedy routines on the Grand Ole Opry, but Kitty Wells was country music's first female singing star. She was first recognized as the Queen of Country Music with her 1952-hit It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.

Kitty Wells kicked the door down for all the major female country singers who have followed. Before Miss Wells, women singers in country were part of groups but did not front their own bands or get star billing on shows.

She has a slightly different view about retiring from extensive touring.

"We'll miss it, no doubt, since we've been doing it so long," said the 1976 inductee into the Country Music Association's Hall of Fame, "but we've been out there long enough."

Before there was Kitty Wells, there was Johnny Wright.

He tore up the country charts in the 1950s as half of the Grand Ole Opry duo Johnny & Jack. He and his brother-in-law Jack Anglin recorded big singles such as Poison Love, Ashes of Love, Love Problems and Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.

In 1939, Johnny and Muriel Wright (Miss Wells) teamed with Jack Anglin to form Johnny Wright and the Happy Roving Cowboys With Jack Anglin. Mr. Anglin was married to Mr. Wright's sister, Louise.

They evolved into the duo of Johnny & Jack that headlined the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry shows in the 1950s and early '60s.Mr. Anglin died on March 7, 1963, in a car crash as he was on the way to a memorial service for plane crash-victims Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and pilot Randy Hughes.

"Kitty and I were at the funeral home when Ott Devine, the manager of the Opry, handed me a piece of paper saying, `Your daughter wants you to call her,"' Mr. Wright recalled. "I got up and called and Ruby said, `Jackson just got killed in a car wreck.' I went back and told my wife about it. We had to leave the service. They had Jack's funeral two days later at another funeral home so his friends could attend while they still were in town."

Mr. Wright forged ahead with his first solo hit, Hello, Vietnam, heard in the movie Full Metal Jacket, and elevated his wife to equal billing.

"We had been giving Kitty second billing," with Johnny & Jack being the headline act, Mr. Wright recalled. "`I don't know what I would have done if it wasn't for Bill Phillips working with us at the time. He knew all the (Johnny & Jack) songs and could sing almost any part. I still missed Jack's voice.

"If it hadn't been for my wife, I'd probably given up."

NEXT WEEK: Johnny Wright and Kitty Wells talk about the struggles that preceded show business stardom and their long list of hits.

Don Rhodes has written about country music for 30 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at ramblin@morris.com.



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