Music Articles


The queen of country music has died. Kitty Wells was a country superstar. She revolutionized that musical genre by becoming its first female solo star. Wells died at home in Nashville today due to complications from a stroke. She was 92 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.


NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Kitty Wells sang about the sad side of domesticity, taking on topics like mothers without custody in the 1950s.


KITTY WELLS: (Singing) I got to see my little girl each Sunday afternoon, and how I dread the words I know she'll say.

ULABY: Wells sang about the real problems of postwar life, says writer Robert Oermann. He co-wrote a book about the history of women in country music, and he says Wells was a pioneer.

ROBERT OERMANN: There had 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.

ULABY: Wells was born in Nashville. Both of her parents were musicians. But she quit high school to work in a shirt factory. She eventually wound up on the radio with her singing sisters, but she shattered the rules of country music with one song she recorded as a demo.


WELLS: (Singing) It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels.

I recorded it in May in 1952. After the song made the hit, I had to go back to work.


ULABY: That's Kitty Wells on NPR two years ago. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" made her the first woman to score a solo hit on the top of the country charts. It even crossed over to the pop charts. But the song was seen as incredibly controversial. It defended women's behavior in the face of cheating men, and the country music establishment was horrified, says historian Mary Bufwack.

MARY BUFWACK: There were more divorces in the postwar era than the United States had ever seen. There was more delinquency. There was more smoking. So it looked like moral decay.

ULABY: Wells herself was quite conservative. She was not a showy or sexy performer and, early on, put her career aside to be with her family. She told NPR in 2008 she did not think of herself as a feminist.

WELLS: I really didn't think too much about it because I always, you know, was pretty natural with the way I felt and the way I, you know, carried myself around. And, of course, after I made the hit with, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," well, Capitol Records got to recording the girl singers, and so now we've got just about many girl singers as there are men singers.


ULABY: One of those singers is Emmylou Harris, who says before Kitty Wells, it was considered unseemly for a woman to get on a bus with a bunch of men to tour.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: She really paved the way for a lot of women to get on that bus and ride on down the road.

ULABY: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, K.D. Lang - every woman working in country music today is riding down the Kitty Wells memorial super highway. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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

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