Country's First Female Star Kitty Wells Dies At 92

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Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music, died at her home in Nashville Monday of complications from a stroke. She was 92. Wells was the first female to score a No. 1 hit on the country charts, and paved the way for other women at a time when the men who ran the industry didn't think a woman could be a headliner.


And now, let's talk about some music that seems never to go out of style. Before there was Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn, there was Kitty Wells. More than 60 years ago, Wells broke the male dominance of the country charts and paved the way for all those other singers who followed. And Kitty Wells died yesterday at her home in Tennessee, at the age of 92.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports that Kitty Wells herself was very different from her songs.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: She was born in the city that became the capitol of country music. Muriel Ellen Deason quit high school to work in a Nashville shirt factory and began singing and playing guitar for local dances and radio stations, with her cousin and sisters. Then she eloped with musician Johnnie Wright, with whom she would continue to perform the rest of her life.


KITTY WELLS AND JOHNNIE WRIGHT: (Singing) For my pleadings have all been in vain for you and you alone dear. And you know that you are guilty of the shame...

KITTY WELLS: I don't know people write those types of songs, that's what they like to hear when, you know, people listening. I don't know why but they do. They like those sad songs, songs that make them cry.

BARCO: Kitty Wells talked to NPR in 1995. Her husband gave her stage name after an old song. By the time she was 33, Wells was ready to retire from music to devote herself to raising their three children. Then she recorded the song that would make her the first female country star.


WELLS: (Singing) As I sit here tonight, the jukebox playing. The tune about the wild side of life...

BARCO: "It Wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels" was Well's response to Hank Thompson's hit "The Wild Side of Life." His song blames a woman he picks up in a bar for breaking up his marriage. Wells turned that around.


WELLS: (Singing) It's a shame that all the blame is on us women. It's not true that only you men feel the same. From the start, most every heart that's ever broken was because there was there always a man to blame...

BARCO: Wells and her husband said the character in the song wasn't her.

WELLS: When I sing a song, I don't consider it, you know, as being part of me or part of my life or anything. Of course, people that know me, they know I never was like that.

JOHNNIE WRIGHT: When that came out, they wouldn't let her sing it on the Grand Ole Opry.

BARCO: They relented when her fans made it a hit.

EMMY LOU HARRIS: That was the one of the first songs in which, you know, a woman said, Excuse me, you know, there's another side to this story.

BARCO: Singer Emmy Lou Harris told NPR in 2008 that Wells and her song struck a chord.

HARRIS: There were a lot of women around the country who said, boy, I can relate to that. All of a sudden, she spoke to a whole psyche, a whole generation of women who probably didn't know that there were not represented on the airways.

BARCO: Wells proved to record labels that a female country singer could make hits, and make them with tearjerkers about infidelity, about being a divorced mother, about broken relationships.

EDDIE STUBBS: Kitty talked about things like that, what it was like to be the abused one left at home.

BARCO: Eddie Stubbs is one of the voices of the Grand Ole Opry, and host on an old time country music radio show on Nashville's WSM.

STUBBS: Her songs straight forward. And it was her honesty and her sincerity and her believability, and the way she sang those songs that really put them across.


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

BARCO: Stubbs played fiddle in Wells' band and says she'd spend hours signing autographs. He also points out she was a devout Christian.

STUBBS: She said I love the music and she said you can love the music too. But you don't have to live the lifestyle portrayed in the music.


WELLS: (Singing) Please release me, let me go. I don't love you anymore...

STUBBS: She had this proper and unpretentious style that, I think, really helped sort of get over some of the barriers that county music had at the time.

BARCO: Writer Michael McCall is an historian for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

MICHAEL MCCALL: She had a very plaintive voice that was very clear and kind of piercing. You know, it felt grounded in a good old fashioned style of Americana. You know, she dressed in gingham dresses, and she very clearly, sort of, saw herself as a housewife and a mother, and a singer.

BARCO: And she continued singing into her 80's, giving it her all, as she always had.

WELLS: You just get the feeling and then get out there and sing it with all your heart. You know, put your whole heart into it. Most of them that I sang, I always put a lot of feeling in them.

BARCO: Kitty Wells had 35 Billboard Top 10 hits and was elected into the County Music Hall of Fame in 1976. She died yesterday at her home, less than a year after her husband of 73 years, Johnnie Wright, died.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


WELLS: (Singing) It's a shame that all the blame is on us women.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.


WELLS: (Singing) It's not true that only you men feel the same. From the start, most every heart that's ever broken, was because there was there always a man to blame...

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