NPR

Kitty Wells: The Queen Of Country Music

Kitty Wells, who paved the way for women in country music and was known as the "Queen of Country," died July 16, 2012. She was 92. NPR Music remembers Wells with a story from the 50 Great Voices series.

Starting in the 1950s, Kitty Wells, known as "The Queen of Country Music," recorded hit after hit at a time when women didn't have hits in country music. When she performed, Wells delivered the goods with a country twang and a supple, powerful voice that reached right to the back of the house.

"What I love about Kitty's voice is the sort of pent-up intensity in it," says Robert Oermann who, with Mary Bufwack, wrote Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music. "It's like she's very private and very intense, but at the same time very penetrating."

This penetrating voice was only part of the reason that Wells was able to rise as a country star. Bufwack explains that the content of her songs was an equally important part of her appeal.

"This postwar era is when a lot of Southerners are moving around. They're nostalgic for some of the roots of home, so she carried the tradition of the South with her," she says. "At the same time, the contents — very updated to the current experience of people."

Wells was not the first female country singer — there had been others from Chicago, Atlanta and the West Coast. But Oermann explains that for Wells to come out of Nashville was extraordinary, because women were regularly pushed to the background in the South at the time.

"They had all these weird rules, like you couldn't play two female records back to back; women couldn't headline concerts," he says.

"Kitty would also tell you that there weren't many songs being written for women at the time," adds Bufwack. "More evidence that there was no encouragement for women to step forward and really be the stars."

Maybe the most famous song Wells ever recorded, "Release Me," fell into the category of "cheating songs."

"After World War II, country music topics broadened considerably," Oermann says. "Prior to the war, country [music] was very much home and hearth and religion. After the war came drinking songs and what are called cheating songs, which are songs of adultery."

She recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" as a response to a "cheating song" from Hank Thompson. In Thompson's song, he sings: "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels" — to which Wells responded, God didn't — you did: "Too many times, married men think they're still single / That has caused many a good girl to go wrong."

Wells' influence cannot be overstated. Oermann and Bufwack point to contemporary country stars like Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless and Lee Ann Womack as examples of women who are carrying on the tradition set by Wells.

Oermann says, "Any Southern female country singer is going to be influenced — there's just no question about that."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

NPR's 50 Great Voices is a yearlong celebration of singers. And this morning we celebrate the great Kitty Wells, the queen of country music.

(Soundbite of song, "Release Me")

Ms. KITTY WELLS (Musician): (Singing) Please release me, let me go...

WERTHEIMER: Kitty Wells is 91 now. Starting in the 1950s, she recorded hit after hit at a time when women didn't have hits in country music. When she performed, Kitty Wells just stood on the stage and delivered the goods, with a country twang and a supple powerful voice that reached right to the back of the house.

Ms. WELLS: I just liked to sing. And I knew I had to sing with all my heart, you know, to make it sound right and to make the song go. So you know what you got to do when you're singing, so you get out there and do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Searching for Someone Just Like You")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) Because I've been searching. I've spent a lifetime, darling, searching...

WERTHEIMER: We talked about Kitty Wells with Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack, who wrote "Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music."

Mr. ROBERT OERMANN (Co-Author, "Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music"): What I love about Kitty's voice is the sort of pent-up intensity in it. It's like she's very private and very intense, but at the same time very penetrating.

(Soundbite of song, "Making Believe")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) Making believe that you still love me, it's leaving me alone and so blue...

WERTHEIMER: Was it her voice that made her into a big star when women were not big stars in country music?

Ms. MARY BUFWACK (Co-Author, "Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music"): I think her voice was a great part of it. But I dont think you could separate her voice from the content. This postwar era is when a lot of Southerners are moving around. They're nostalgic for some of the roots of home, so she carried the tradition of the South with her. At the same time, the content is very updated to the current experience of people.

Mr. OERMANN: Society's fragmentation and then society's dislocation and the problems of postwar life.

(Soundbite of song, "Mommy for a Day")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) You ask me when Im coming home. Ill answer, pretty soon. For I know Im just her mommy for a day...

Mr. OERMANN: There have been females in country music from Chicago and from the West Coast and from Atlanta and other country music capitals. But Kitty came along when Nashville and the South were becoming the capital of country music. And there, women were very much pushed to the background. They had all these weird rules that you couldn't play two female records back to back, women couldn't headline concerts.

Ms. BUFWACK: Kitty would also tell you that there weren't many songs being written for women at the time, more evidence that there was no encouragement for women to step forward and really be the stars.

(Soundbite of song, "Release Me")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) I have found a new love, dear. And Ill always want him near...

WERTHEIMER: Maybe the most famous song she ever recorded falls into the category of cheating songs. Or, as Kitty Wells - thats not what she called them. But can you explain what they are - cheating songs - and why they were so popular in the '50s?

Mr. OERMANN: After World War II, country music topics broadened considerably. Prior to the war, country was very much home and hearth and religion. After the war came drinking songs and what are called cheating songs, which are songs of adultery.

WERTHEIMER: She recorded "It Wasnt God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," as a response to a sort of a cheating song from a man.

Mr. OERMANN: Hank Thompson's hit, Kit answers with "It Wasnt God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

(Soundbite of song, "The Wild Side of Life")

Mr. HANK THOMPSON (Musician): (Singing) I didnt know God made honky tonk angels. I might have known you'd never make a wife...

WERTHEIMER: He says in the song: I didnt know God made honky tonk angels.

Mr. OERMANN: Right.

WERTHEIMER: And her response is: God didnt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OERMANN: Right, you did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "It Wasnt God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) Too many times, married men think they're still single. That has caused many a good girl to go wrong...

Mr. OERMANN: The Opry was and is very conservative. And she was initially rejected by the Opry for not being showy enough - that she was too prim. And then she has this hit thats too outspoken and then they ban her for that reason. It's like they couldnt - they tried to ban her both ways: both for being too conservative and for being too outspoken.

WERTHEIMER: Another category of song that she sang. She sang it completely straight, nothing dramatic, nothing weepy about it, but the songs are weepy and the audience cried.

Ms. BUFWACK: There are just these tragedies that are oftentimes dealt with in song and they're very, very moving: the loss of life, the loss of young children in death...

WERTHEIMER: Or in one of Kitty Wells' famous songs, the loss of a wedding dress...

Ms. BUFWACK: Yeah, right.

WERTHEIMER: ...not to mention...

Mr. OERMANN: Yeah. "I Gave My Wedding Dress Away."

Ms. BUFWACK: "I Gave My Wedding Dress Away."

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "I Gave My Wedding Dress Away")

Ms. WELLS: Tomorrow was to be my wedding day. But I gave my wedding dress away...

WERTHEIMER: When you listen to country music now, to women singing in country music, are there voices that just pop out at you and say, child of Kitty Wells - this is a Kitty Wells woman?

Mr. OERMANN: I would say Emmylou Harris, for one, because she did revive "Making Believe." Pam Tillis revived "Amigo's Guitar." I mean there are several women who draw on Kitty's repertoire.

Ms. BUFWACK: And there are women that really are very much ingrained in that kind of country tradition that are really great, like Patty Loveless, Lee Ann Womack. These are not slackers in the vocal category. But they do maintain a much more regional sense to their vocals and their music.

Mr. OERMANN: Any Southern female country singer is going to be influenced. I mean there's just no question about that.

WERTHEIMER: Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack joined us from Nashville to talk about Kitty Wells, the queen of country music, and one of NPR's 50 Great Voices. Their book about women in country music is called "Finding Her Voice."

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song, "Making Believe")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) Ill spend my lifetime loving you, making believe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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