First female superstar of country music, Kitty Wells, dies

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Country music pioneer Kitty Wells, the genre's first female superstar, died of a stroke Monday at her home.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Country music pioneer Kitty Wells, the genre's first female superstar, died of a stroke Monday at her home.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Without Kitty Wells, there might be no Taylor Swift. Or Miranda Lambert. Or Loretta Lynn.

She was the pioneer, the first female singer with enough spunk and fire to get noticed in the male-dominated world of country music.

Think about it: No Tammy Wynette. No Tanya Tucker. No Carrie Underwood.

“Without her there wouldn’t be a lot of us,” said Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard.

The family of country music’s first female superstar said she died peacefully at home Monday after complications from a stroke. She was 92.

Dubbed “The Queen of Country Music” decades ago, Wells had been a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame since 1976 and could look back on a career that spanned more than six decades after her retirement.

Yet as a devastated Shepard said, Wells was largely a forgotten figure in the 21st century, even as so many strong female personalities populate country’s landscape.

Born Ellen Muriel Deason in Nashville, the daughter of a railroad brakeman, Wells was known as a gracious, elegant and family-oriented person.

She began playing the guitar at age 14 and soon was performing at dances in the Nashville area.

Wells married Johnny Wright, half of a duo called Johnny and Jack, in 1938 when she was not yet 20, and soon began touring with the duo. She took her stage name from an old folk song, Sweet Kitty Wells. Johnny Wright died Sept. 27, 2011.

By the late ’40s they were appearing on the Grand Ole Opry. He performed with her throughout her career and their long marriage.

Wells scored the first country No. 1 hit by a solo female artist with It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels. It gave the woman’s point of view about the wild side of life. The song was written by J.D. Miller as a retort to Hank Thompson’s 1952 hit, The Wild Side of Life.

Her success dashed the notion that women couldn’t be headliners. Billboard magazine had been charting country singles for about eight years at that time.

She recorded about 50 albums and had 25 Top 10 country hits. From 1953 to 1968, polls listed Wells as the No. 1 female country singer until Wynette finally dethroned her.

It was Wells’ true-to-life songs that were modern in perspective and heartfelt in delivery that defined her career. Her 1955 hit Making Believe was on the soundtrack of Mississippi Burning, filmed 33 years later. Among her other hits were The Things I Might Have Been, Release Me, Amigo’s Guitar, Heartbreak USA, Left to Right and a version of I Can’t Stop Loving You.

Each offered something identifiable to the listener, making connections for women.

Wells, though, was coy about her place in the country music world.

“I never really thought about being a pioneer,” she said in 2008. “I loved doing what I was doing.”

It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels opened the way for women to present their view of life and love in country music. It also encouraged Nashville songwriters to begin writing from a woman’s perspective.

The song was controversial enough that the Grand Ole Opry asked Wells not to perform it, and some radio stations were reluctant to play it.

“They get away with a lot more today,” Wells told the AP in 1986. “They’re more (sexually) suggestive today.”

Her solo recording career lasted from 1952 to the late 1970s, and she made concert tours from the late 1930s until 2000. That year, she announced she was quitting the road, although she performed occasionally in Nashville and elsewhere afterward.

After her induction into the Hall of Fame, she also received the Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in 1991.

“What I’ve done has been satisfying,” she said in the 1986 AP interview. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Shepard said she was devastated by her friend’s passing. She visited with Wells a handful of times since Wright’s passing and was supposed to visit last week along with her friend Jan Howard. But she couldn’t make it due to medical appointments.

“And I’m just so sorry we didn’t get to go see her,” Shepard said. “She was just a precious person always.”


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