Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Undisputed Queen

Kitty Wells turns 80 and still has an impact on music

By Bill Friskics-Warren

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Nashville may be the Country Music Capital of the World and home to both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. It may be the first place that people think of--or at least used to think of--when it comes to twangy drawls and crying steel guitars. But the city sure doesn't grow its own. From Texas to Oklahoma, from Kentucky and the Tennessee-Virginia border to points beyond, virtually every singer in the annals of country music has moved to Nashville from somewhere else.

Among the industry's biggest names, only Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music, was born and raised here. Lesser lights such as Warner Mack and Pearl Butler are also native Nashvillians. So are a number of second-generation hitmakers, Lorrie Morgan and Deana Carter among them. But Wells, who turns 80 on Monday, is the only singer born in Music City who went on to become a pioneer and standard-bearer. Commercially and otherwise, few people have had more impact on the development of country music than Kitty Wells.

Wells' epochal 1952 single, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," not only revived her own faltering career, it helped open the doors of Nashville's recording studios to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women. Female singers before Wells--and indeed, Wells herself--had known success on radio barn dances and as touring acts prior to the 1950s. But until the release of "Honky Tonk Angels," the postwar country-music industry didn't think women could sell records--this despite the fact that Patsy Montana's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" moved a million units back in 1935. Galvanized by plaintive fiddle-and-steel, Wells' mournful whine, and a pronounced female point of view, "Honky Tonk Angels" defied the prevailing wisdom and sold 800,000-plus copies. It also spent six weeks at the top of the country charts and went as high as No. 27 on the Billboard pop chart.

On the strength of these numbers, Wells became the first female singing star on the Grand Ole Opry during the 1950s. With the string of best-selling singles that followed, including such smashes as "Release Me," "Making Believe," and "I Can't Stop Loving You," Wells garnered top female vocalist honors in the country trade magazines from 1952 to 1965. (Today, such a feat would be comparable, say, to Faith Hill wearing both the CMA and ACM female vocalist crowns for 14 straight years.) By the late '60s, when her unprecedented run ended, Wells had placed 38 singles in the country Top 10 and a total of 84 on the charts. In the process, she not only became country's first female superstar, she became a prototype for generations of country women, from Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton to Iris DeMent.

Kitty Wells with husband Johnny Wright (in hat at left), Jim Anglin (in hat at right), and the Tennessee Mountain Boys.

Wells might not have scaled the heights that she did, however, had it not been for a chance meeting between her husband Johnnie Wright and Decca Records exec Paul Cohen in early 1952. Wells and Wright had just moved back to Nashville from Shreveport, where Wright and his partner Jack Anglin (together known as Johnnie & Jack) had been mainstays on KWKH's Louisiana Hayride program. As part of their show, Wells had also been a regular on the Hayride. She had even cut eight poorly promoted sides for RCA in 1949 and 1950. But when, in 1951, Johnnie & Jack's breakthrough hit "Poison Love" took off and the Opry lured the duo back to Nashville, Wells, by this time a mother of three, was ready to trade her microphone for a pair of apron strings.

"I was gonna stay at home with the children and be a homemaker," recalls Wells, sitting with her husband in the living room of the couple's modest ranch-style home in Madison. "We had sent Paul Cohen a record to listen to before we left Shreveport, but we never heard from him. Johnnie & Jack were working the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree, and Johnnie asked Paul, who happened to be there that night, if he would be interested in recording me. Paul said yes, that he'd heard this song and that he'd like for us to listen to it to see if we liked it."

Wells wasn't knocked out by the song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," a response to Hank Thompson's current No. 1 hit, "The Wild Side of Life." But she agreed to cut the tune anyway, enticed by the $125 union scale that the session would pay. She certainly didn't think the single would fare any better than the neglected sides she had recorded for RCA. In fact, Wells didn't even know that Decca had released "Honky Tonk Angels" until Audrey Williams, Hank Williams' ex-wife, called to say that she'd heard the song on the radio. "Audrey had been down to Montgomery," Wells remembers, "and she said, 'Girl, you've got a hit on your hands. Every station I've had on coming home from Montgomery was playing your song.'

"I wasn't expecting it to make a hit," Wells admits. "I just thought it was another song. It was just the women getting back at the men."

But "Honky Tonk Angels" was a whole lot more than the women getting back at the men--the song gave voice to the feelings of countless women living in postwar America. When, during the previous decade, thousands of GIs marched to war, women picked up the slack, entering the work force and gaining a measure of social and financial independence. But when the men came home, they wanted to turn back the clock, expecting women to resume their former roles as stay-at-home moms and housewives. In the process, women became something of a scapegoat, their morals called into question by their newfound freedom.

Enter "The Wild Side of Life," a weeper that found Thompson playing the part of the jilted lover and wondering if indeed some women were wayward and independent by nature. One can certainly see how the already threatened men of the era might have responded readily to the song's premise, applying it to all womankind.

Penned by Louisiana producer Jay Miller, "Honky Tonk Angels" offered a rejoinder to Thompson's hit. "It's a shame that all the blame is on us women," Wells sang in her mournful mountain vibrato at the beginning of the second stanza. Later, in the song's chorus, she chided, "Too many times married men think they're still single/That has caused many a good girl to go wrong."

"Kitty is expressing sympathy for the woman who has fallen, and during this era, there are many women who have fallen, whether it was during wartime or afterwards," observes Mary Bufwack, co-author, with Robert K. Oermann, of Finding Her Voice: The Illustrated History of Women in Country Music.

As Bufwack's comment suggests, "Honky Tonk Angels" was a bit risqu for its day. What rendered it less threatening, though, was Wells' own matronly persona. Just the opposite of the woman she played in the song, Wells was a 32-year-old housewife and mother who wore the gingham associated with the Carter Family instead of the spangly new Western wear of her '50s counterparts. Even listeners who hadn't seen Wells knew from the quiet dignity with which she delivered the song's lyrics that she was playing a role. Had "Honky Tonk Angels" come from one of her saucier contemporaries--from a barroom belter such as Charline Arthur or Rose Maddox--the song doubtless would have seemed an endorsement of loose living and sunk like a stone.

"Kitty's not being brazen about it," Bufwack says, explaining why the song had such widespread appeal. "Kitty conveys that older Victorian sense of 'She Is More to Be Pitied Than Censured,' " a turn-of-the-century song that attributed the downfall of disgraced women to designing men rather than feminine wiles.

Another factor that contributed to the success of "Honky Tonk Angels" was its familiar melody, a tune drawn from the Carter Family's "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" (as was Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" and Roy Acuff's "The Great Speckled Bird"). Practically anyone could hum along to "Angels" the first time they heard it. The lyrics may have given men their comeuppance, but musically, the song had a nostalgic air, harking back to a time when gender roles, and many other things, were more clearly delineated.

Ever unassuming, Wells admits that when "Honky Tonk Angels" became a hit, she gave little consideration to musicological and sociological considerations such as these. From her vantage point, the record's success merely meant that she was going back out on the road. "That was the end of my retirement," shrugs Wells, "and I've been working ever since."

This last comment is more than just idle talk. Today, at ages 80 and 85, Wells and her husband Johnnie Wright, along with their son Bobby, still tour, playing upwards of 100 dates a year. Indeed, for the past 60 years, a period in which country music evolved from homemade folk music to commercial record-making, Wells and Wright have been performing together at schoolhouses, honky-tonks, theaters, county fairs, casinos, and, of course, on the Grand Ole Opry.

Kitty and Johnny with their three children, from left, Bobby, Ruby, and Carol Sue.

Born Muriel Ellen Deason on Aug. 30, 1919, Wells came by her work ethic as a little girl growing up on Wharf Avenue--and, later, on Fain Street--in South Nashville. Her father, "Big Charlie" Deason, was a brakeman for the Tennessee Central Railroad. Her brothers helped out on her grandfather's farm. And Wells herself dropped out of high school (she attended Lipscomb and Howard schools) to go to work ironing and folding shirts at Washington Manufacturing Company, at that time located downtown near Fourth Avenue and Deaderick Street.

"I grew up during the Depression, so I was always glad to get a little work," Wells explains. "I even cleaned house and kept a little boy for a lady while she worked. She paid me $3 a week to do that. My brother, he joined what they called the CC camps. That's what President Roosevelt started so the boys could go out and work.... I think he got paid $30 a month for doing that."

The demands of eking out a living notwithstanding, there was always plenty of time for music in the Deason home. Wells, her sisters, and her mother sang gospel songs around the kitchen table and at church. Kitty's uncle was a country-dance fiddler, her father a folksinger who emulated his fellow brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers. "My daddy played guitar and sang old folk songs," Wells recalls. "I used to sit down on the floor and listen to him sing. I could do that for hours.

"Then, in 1925," she continues, "they started the Grand Ole Opry, even though it was sometime in the '30s before we ever got a radio. Then we could listen to the Opry. They had it up on Seventh Avenue, in the [National Life] building up there where they used to do the radio show. Later on, our insurance man would give us tickets to go to the Opry, so I grew up with it."

Wells' early favorites on the show included such hoedown bands as Dr. Humphrey Bate's Possum Hunters and the George Wilkerson-led Fruit Jar Drinkers. Later, Wells also took a shine to newcomers Pee Wee King and Roy Acuff, as well as to a husky-throated cowgirl singer named Texas Ruby.

By that time, Wells had launched her own singing career. She and her cousin Bessie Choate had formed a duo, billing themselves as the Deason Sisters. In 1936, the teenagers made their radio debut on WSIX, on a Saturday-afternoon show called The Old Country Store. They sang the Carter Family's "Jealous Hearted Me," but the station's brass, deeming the duo's choice of material too suggestive, pulled the plug on them mid-performance. "They cut us off the air," Wells explains. "But the song was real popular, and we got so many requests for it that they finally let us sing it."

WSIX eventually gave the duo their own show, with Wells' sisters Jewel and Mae sometimes joining them on the air. "We went on at 6:15 in the morning," she recalls. "We used to get up every morning and go uptown to the Andrew Jackson building."

More crucial to Wells' musical development than this early radio work, though, was meeting Johnnie Wright, a young farmer and aspiring picker from Mount Juliet. Wright's sister had recently married and moved to Nashville, right next door to the Deasons. "I had brought my mother and father to visit my sister," Wright remembers, setting the scene for his first meeting with Wells. "We were having lunch, and my sister said, 'You know, Johnnie, there's a girl who lives next door that sings some of the prettiest gospel songs you've ever heard. She plays the guitar too.'

"So I said, 'Well, invite her over and introduce me.' So she did. I was singing some then too. I was working at Davis Cabinet Company. Kitty sang 'Jealous Hearted Me' and two or three gospel songs. We starting dating after that--in 1935. We dated from '35 until we were married in '37."

When the couple was first married, Johnnie was making $13.50 a week at Davis Cabinet, Kitty $9 a week at Washington Manufacturing--a decent combined income by Depression standards. The newlyweds rented their first house, at 1616 Seventh Ave. N., near the Werthan Bag Factory and Cotton Mill, for $5 a month.

Wells and her cousin, now singing with Wright and his sister Louise, still had their 15-minute morning show on WSIX. They were by this time billing themselves as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls. "Of course, we all had jobs during the day," Wells says. "But on weekends, we'd go out around here, to little theaters, or around McEwen or Dickson somewhere and play a schoolhouse."

After the couple's first child Ruby was born on Oct. 27, 1939, Wright and his brother-in-law, Jack Anglin (who'd married Wright's sister Louise), formed a duo of their own. The two men sang very much in the style of the Delmore Brothers, perhaps the most popular brother act of the 1930s.

"Jack could play a guitar real good, and I would just follow behind with chords," Wright says. "There was no television back then. Nobody had ever seen the Delmore Brothers, but they loved 'em. This guy who worked with me at Davis Cabinet Company would take us around to restaurants and places, asking people if they'd ever heard of the Delmore Brothers. When they'd say, 'Yeah,' he'd say, 'Hold on, I've got 'em out in the car.' So we'd grab our guitars, go in, and sing two or three Delmore Brothers songs. People loved our singing."

Johnnie & Jack soon got their own radio show on WSIX, appearing as Johnny Wright and the Happy Roving Cowboys. By 1940, the two men had quit their day jobs and, with their families in tow, headed to Greensboro, N.C., to start a radio show on WBIG. Bill Monroe's brother Charlie was the duo's main competition at the station--a situation, says Wright, that grew into quite a rivalry.

"Charlie, he kind of got jealous of us because we were singing like the Delmore Brothers. In fact, we was doing so good that Charlie finally told the radio station manager, 'Either they gonna leave or I'm gonna leave.' Now, Charlie was selling a medicine called Retunga--a remedy kind of like Hadacol. He had money backing him and we didn't, so we had to take off."

Johnnie & Jack went on to have radio shows, among other places, on WCHS-Charleston (where Kitty and Johnnie's son Bobby was born); WNOX-Knoxville (where the duo hired a young fiddle player by the name of Chester Burton Atkins); and WPTF-Raleigh. Throughout this peripatetic period, until 1947, when Johnnie & Jack returned to Nashville to join the Opry, Wells was the featured "girl singer" in their show. This was also when, at her husband's suggestion, she assumed the stage name Kitty Wells, an appellation drawn from an old Pickard Family song.

Shortly before returning home to Nashville in '47, Johnnie & Jack cut some sides for the King and Apollo labels, but the records went nowhere. Much the same was true of the duo's brief tenure on the Opry that year. Thinking that a change of scene might be the answer, Wright wrangled Johnnie & Jack, and Kitty, a gig with KWKH-Shreveport, where their buddies the Bailes Brothers already had their own show. This was in early 1948; in April of that year, Johnnie & Jack, Wells, and the Bailes Brothers appeared on the first broadcast of the Louisiana Hayride. Hank Williams would make his debut on the show in September.

In Shreveport, Kitty also worked as a disc jockey under the name "The Little Rag Doll," spinning records and selling quilt pieces over the air. "People would write in," she recalls, "and I would play a record every now and then. And of course, I'd plug the quilt pieces. But I didn't do that too very long. It was more of a novelty thing."

Finally, in January of 1949, Wells got to make her first record. By this time, Chet Atkins had signed with RCA Records as a recording artist, and he convinced RCA chief Steve Sholes to sign the Wrights to the label. "I had a letter from Steve that said to meet him in Atlanta, Ga., and have four songs ready to record," Wright recalls. "So Jack and I got four songs together, and Kitty had four gospel songs. We had an upright bass fiddle, and Ray Atkins played the Dobro guitar. And we had Paul Warren playing the fiddle, and Clyde Baum played the mandolin. This was our regular band at the time, the Tennessee Mountain Boys. They also backed Kitty on her four sides."

At her session, Wells cut "Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet," a song that Rose Maddox had just released, and one that the Stanley Brothers would record later that year. Wells also did "How Far is Heaven," a song that became one of the most enduring numbers in her stage show, and one that she rerecorded with her daughter Carol Sue in 1956. "Didn't any of 'em do any good," she says of her RCA recordings. "They didn't get any distribution. It was real hard for anybody to get started back then, so I got off the label. After we moved back to Nashville from Shreveport, I was just gonna quit singing and stay at home."

Wells' career might have been sputtering, but Johnnie & Jack were on the verge of a breakthrough, and a serendipitous one at that. It came while the duo was in the studio at RCA working up a new song, "Poison Love." Ernie Newton, Red Foley's bass player, offered the two men some friendly advice.

"Ernie said, 'You guys sound like Bill Monroe and everybody else,' " Wright remembers. "Ernie had maracas strapped around his hand and said, 'Johnnie, you've got a good song. But why don't y'all try something a little different? Can you play the calypso beat on the guitar?' I said no, I couldn't. Jack couldn't either. But then [picker and on-air personality] Eddie Hill walked in the studio.... I said, 'Eddie, can you play the Latin beat on the guitar?' He grabbed up the guitar and started doing that calypso beat, and when Ernie started hitting that bass with the maracas, it sounded unusual. As soon as RCA released the record, it started getting some action."

"Poison Love" climbed as high as No. 4 on the Billboard country chart in 1951, high enough to get Johnnie & Jack their second invite to join the Opry. They followed it up with "Cryin' Heart Blues," another Top 10 hit, but once "Honky Tonk Angels" broke for Wells in '52, her popularity quickly eclipsed that of the male duo.

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" had an air of inevitability about it if any song ever did. "You've got this clever commercial song that captured women's feelings, captured something of the sense of the time, and used a melody that was very familiar to country audiences," observes Bufwack. "And it's delivered by this nice, conservative housewife in a voice that captured all the sorrow and despair of the Appalachian music that was still very much a part of the culture. It's not just Kitty, or just some songwriter or producer, but rather the collective creative genius of country music at its best."

At first, the ultra-conservative management at the Opry didn't see it that way, even though the runaway success of "Honky Tonk Angels" earned Wells an invitation to join the show's cast. "They banned it to start with," she says. "They wouldn't let me sing it. They thought it was suggestive. But after it became a hit, and all the radio stations all over the country were playing it, they had to let me sing it."

Meanwhile, hoping to cash in on Wells' success, record companies around Nashville herded female singers into the studio. Chet Atkins, now working as an A&R man and session musician for RCA, signed Charline Arthur, the Davis Sisters, and Betty Cody to the label. (Cody sang very much in the aching, updated Appalachian twang popularized by Wells.) MGM signed Rita Faye and Audrey Williams. King Records recruited Ann Jones and Bonnie Lou. Even Decca, Wells' label, got into the act, landing Goldie Hill, "The Golden Hillbilly."

"It was because of 'Honky Tonk Angels' that I got to sing," says Goldie Hill, who had a handful of Top 20 hits, including "I Let the Stars Get in My Eyes," a No. 1 hit in 1953. Today Hill lives with her husband, honky-tonker Carl Smith, on a farm just outside Nashville. "Kitty busted the door wide open, and I happened to be the second girl on Decca at the time. People got interested in girl singers in a hurry because of Kitty. My brother Tommy was playing with Webb Pierce at the time. When Kitty hit, Webb said he needed a girl singer. And my brother said, 'Well, I got a little sister at home who can sing.' So Webb hired me, just like that."

Honky-tonk heroine Jean Shepard found it tougher to secure a solo deal than Hill did. "Hank Thompson took an acetate of mine to [Capitol Records producer] Ken Nelson, and Ken told him, 'There's just no place for women in honky-tonk music.' " Of course, Nelson eventually signed Shepard to Capitol, for which her 1953 debut, "A Dear John Letter," a duet with Ferlin Husky, sold a million copies. "That was when only one in seven or eight households had a record-playing device," Shepard says. "We had to sell a heck of a lot of records back then to sell a million records.

"Kitty and I, along with Skeeter Davis and others, we made the public realize that women could have a voice in this industry. We weren't just girl singers in a band. We made the industry understand that sooner or later it was gonna have to reckon with us. We were gonna be a force, come hell or high water."

Shepard joined the Opry in 1955 and scored 25 Top 40 hits with Capitol between 1953 and 1971. But of this new generation of honky-tonk women, which also included Shepard's West Coast cohort Rose Maddox, it was Kitty Wells who would become known as the Queen of Country Music. Wells racked up six Top 10 hits in her first two years on Decca. The pair that followed "Honky Tonk Angels" were likewise answer records: "Paying for That Backstreet Affair" (No. 6) was a response to Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair," and "Hey Joe" (No. 8) was a rejoinder to Carl Smith's hit of the same name.

Wells released her second No. 1, "One by One"--the first of many duets with Red Foley--in mid-1954. A tide of hits followed. She charted a total of 30 Top 20 singles in a mere six years, all but six of them breaking into the Top 10. Meanwhile, song publisher Fred Rose gave Wells her regal title, and Johnnie Wright, in a move that his good ol' boy peers swore would backfire, gave his wife billing over Johnnie & Jack.

"We worked with Roy Acuff for a year in '57," Wright explains. "Roy never would feature a girl because he didn't think a girl could ever be a star of a show. But we got to talking about it, and I said, 'I don't see why, what with Kitty being more popular than Johnnie & Jack, we couldn't start calling it 'The Kitty Wells Family Show With Johnnie & Jack.' Roy said it'd never work. And it went on that way for another year while we worked with Ernest Tubb. But Kitty was getting more and more popular all the time, so I just talked to Jack and said, 'If we make it "Kitty Wells featuring Johnnie & Jack," then I think we'll draw more people,' and it worked."

Wright not only managed Wells' affairs (something he has done throughout her career), he served as her A&R rep as well, scouring the publishing houses along 16th Avenue for material she could record. "I'd go out there looking for songs for Kitty that told a story, songs that she could put a lot of feeling in," he explains.

The feeling of which Wright speaks has always been paramount to Wells' raw, unadorned singing style. Her producer, Owen Bradley, grasped this better than anyone did. He employed the same band that Wells sang with onstage, Johnnie & Jack's Tennessee Mountain Boys. And much as he did with Webb Pierce, Bradley kept Kitty's 2/4 shuffles lean and gutbucket, typically highlighting only the fiddle or steel guitar.

"Everybody had their instrumental hook in those days," explains Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs, who came to Nashville in 1995 to play fiddle with Wells, Wright, and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. "Eddy Arnold had his with [steel guitarist] Little Roy Wiggins. Ernest Tubb had his with [lead guitarist] Billy Byrd. But what set Kitty's records apart, mainly, was Shot Jackson's steel and, in the first couple of years, Paul Warren's fiddle."

"The steel guitar, I think, was the main instrument that people recognized on my records--the way Shot played the steel," Wells says. "[He] was a great musician." Indeed, from "Honky Tonk Angels" to "Cheatin's a Sin," and on most of her early sides, the notes that Jackson played ached every bit as much as Wells' pure, wailing voice did. In contrast to the updated mountain-stringband sound of her contemporaries Molly O'Day and Wilma Lee Cooper, Wells' records lent themselves to the era's jukeboxes: The combination of her voice and Jackson's steel could pierce the din of even the most crowded honky-tonks.

Wells' unvarnished sound took on more polish over the years, adding reverb, drums, twin fiddles, background singers, and the like. But as Stubbs observes, "Johnnie and Kitty worked to keep her music in perspective. So did Owen Bradley. Owen was good for Kitty; he understood her."

As an example of her sympathetic relationship with Bradley, who produced all of her sides for Decca, Wells cites the 1957 session in which she cut "(I'll Always Be Your) Fraulein," an answer song to Bobby Helms' No. 1 hit "Fraulein." "This was just before we started having drums on my records," Wells explains. "Owen wanted to use drums, so he'd sent for a drummer. But Johnnie went and talked to him and said, 'We don't want no drums on Kitty's records.' So when that drummer got there, Owen sent him right on back home."

"Later, everybody started using drums," Wright adds. "They even started having 'em on the Grand Ole Opry. But we didn't have drums on the road. Whatever the record sounded like when it came out, we tried to keep it like that when we went out to play."

"Kitty's records adapted to the times, to the Nashville Sound and other innovations," Stubbs says, "but you always knew a Kitty Wells record when you heard it. Kitty's records never lost their identity."

And no matter what she sang, Kitty's very identity as a performer and as a person was never in doubt. She played all sorts of roles in her songs, including that of the wayward lover, such as on "I Don't Claim to be an Angel" and several other hits. But in real life, Wells was a faithful wife and devoted mother--and later, a grandmother and great-grandmother. The disparity between the life she lived and the one she sang about never seemed to bother her.

"I just thought of 'em as songs, as songs that told a story," she explains. "A lot of times they were written about something that happened to some person, about their life. I'd just go in and record 'em, hoping they'd make a hit.

"I always went to church, and people knew that I went to church. A lot of people [in the business] didn't want other people to know that they were married. But Johnnie and I never tried to keep our marriage a secret. When the children were growing up, we took 'em with us on the road. They traveled with us. One of 'em, Bobby [who later starred in the hit TV series McHale's Navy], grew up singing and touring with us. He still travels with us."

Nevertheless, some of the songs Kitty sang gave her fans pause. "Back when Kitty and [Red] Foley had the big hit, 'One by One,' Kitty would get mail from people telling her that she should stay at home with her husband and quit running around with him," Johnnie laughs. "They thought she was in with Red Foley. We'd get all kinds of mail like that."

But this was more the exception than the rule. As an interpreter, and a consummate one at that, Wells has inhabited a variety of characters, from long-suffering housewife to guilt-ridden sinner. Ultimately, though, her dignified yet emotive vocals always convey enough distance to remind listeners of the woman behind the song.

The hits quit coming after 1968, but Wells and Wright kept touring and singing on the Opry, something that they continue to do to this day. Wells also had a syndicated TV show in the late '60s and started publishing a series of down-home cookbooks. In 1974, she made an album for Capricorn Records, an ill-conceived project that featured members of the Allman Brothers and yielded one chart single, a cover of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."

By this time, though, Wells' stature as country music's reigning matron was secure. In 1976, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. At the 1991 Grammy Awards, along with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Marian Anderson, she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for the trail she blazed for women in country music.

"Kitty Wells became a figure that other women looked toward, someone that they modeled themselves after," Eddie Stubbs says. "That doesn't mean that they would sing the same types of songs or dress the same as she did. But Kitty became someone to emulate. Loretta Lynn, for example, said for years that Kitty Wells was her favorite singer. She also sang Kitty's songs."

Everyone from Hazel Dickens to Dolly Parton to Emmylou Harris sang Wells' songs. But even more important than Wells' music was her role in opening the doors of Nashville's recording studios to subsequent generations of country women, from Goldie Hill, Skeeter Davis, Patsy Cline, and Jan Howard to Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith, Norma Jean, and Tammy Wynette.

"Kitty did open doors," says Opry star Connie Smith. "I don't think she did it purposefully. She was just being Kitty Wells. It was just a natural thing for her to do. I believe that it was Kitty's calling to be a front-runner, a pioneer, and that she obeyed that calling and that she did it in the finest sense that she could. She did it by staying true to herself--as a mother, a wife, and an artist. I think that if anybody ever obeyed their calling, she did. And she continues to do so. I believe with all my heart that Kitty is still the queen."

"I get real upset when I hear 'em say on the radio, 'Shania Twain, the queen of country music,' " fumes Jean Shepard. "I'm sure the girl is really talented. But it upsets me when they do something like that. Me and Kitty didn't have a belly button to show when we were coming up.

"As far as I'm concerned, there'll only be one Queen of Country Music, and that's Kitty Wells. There are a lot of great new voices out there, but Kitty simply cannot be outclassed."

"It's an honor to be named the queen of country music," Wells admits in typically unassuming fashion. "But sometimes, it's kindly embarrassing because there's a lot of other girls out there that are great singers. Jean Shepard, she come up just like we did--the hard way. She had a lot of great songs. I just happened to be the first one."

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