Kitty Wells never let stardom change her demeanor as she blazed musical trails
It's hard to believe the first "Queen of Country Music" dropped out of school in 1934 to work in a Nashville shirt factory.
Kitty Wells (born Muriel Deason) worked in the Washington Manufacturing Co. for six years until she and her husband, Johnny Wright, 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," Mr. Wright said in a telephone interview from his Nashville-area home.
Miss Wells, 81, and her 86-year-old husband will perform their last road show on New Year's Eve at the Nashville Night Life Club but have left the door open to performing occasional special dates.
Miss Wells, born in Nashville, was the daughter of a railroad brakeman.
Muriel and Johnny married on Oct. 30, 1937, then teamed with Johnny's sister Louise to perform on WSIX as Johnny Wright and the Harmony Girls. The next year, Louise married Jack Anglin, and the family act became Johnny Wright and the Happy Roving Cowboys With Jack Anglin.
"I loved her when I married her, and evidently she loved me, too," Mr. Wright said of their 63-year-marriage. "Both of us knew what it was like to work hard when we married. She was working at the Washington Manufacturing Company folding shirts, and I was working for Davis Cabinet Company 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.
Miss Wells first achieved recording fame in 1952 with It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.
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.
Miss Wells had 23 No. 1 records and was honored by Fred Rose (partner of Roy Acuff in the song-publishing company Acuff-Rose) with the title "Queen of Country Music."
I met Miss Wells in 1973 at an autograph signing at a Nashville department store. I have never seen her act like a star in the years since but always have been struck by her friendly and humble nature.
"I've tried to be a plain, everyday person," she said. "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."