JACKI LYDEN, host:

We're going to take a step up now in musical class to the queen of country music, Miss Kitty Wells. She was the first woman to have a solo hit reach the top of the country charts, and that song was, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." It's just been added to the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Independent producer Ben Manilla is profiling several of the new entries on the registry. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" was recorded in 1952, and it raised a lot of heckles back then blaming unfaithful men for creating wild women. For the story of the song, we'll hear from Kitty Wells herself, who turns 90 next year. She's joined by a writer.

Ms. MARY BUFWACK (Author): My name is Mary Bufwack, and I'm author with my husband, Robert Oermann, of "Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800 to 2000."

LYDEN: And another gal who's a country household name.

Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS (Country Singer): My name is Emmylou Harris, and I'm a country singer. And even though I know I'll never sound like Kitty Wells, at least I have the joy of listening to her.

(Soundbite of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels")

Ms. KITTY WELLS (Singer): My name is Kitty Wells, and I'm an entertainer.

(Singing) As I sit here tonight the jukebox's playing the tune about the wild side of life. As I listen to the words...

Ms. BUFWACK: Kitty Wells was a 33-year-old housewife and mother and records a song that, in many ways, captured the tensions of the time.

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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: Kitty Wells has the title queen of country music because she was the quintessential country singer. I mean, she's got that wonderful nasal sound that is just inherent in her voice. And the song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," that was one of the first songs in which, you know, a woman said, excuse me, you know, there's another side to this story.

Ms. WELLS: It was an answer to "The Wild Side of Life" whose Hank Thompson had out at the time. And it was a hit over the charts and was making a big hit.

(Soundbite of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels")

Ms. BUFWACK: An answer song is a song where usually, there is a male point of view and a female point of view. Hank Thompson talks about wild women and finding women on the wild side of life.

(Soundbite of "The Wild Side of Life")

Mr. HANK THOMPSON: (Singing) The glamour of the gay night life has lured you to the places where the wine and liquor flow, where you wait to be anybody's baby and forget the truest love you'll ever know. I didn't know God made honky tonk angels. I might have known you'd never make a wife.

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels, as you said in the words of your song. Too many times, married men think they're still single, that has caused many a good girl to go wrong.

Ms. BUFWACK: There were more divorces in the post-war era than the United States had ever seen. There was more delinquency. There was more smoking. So, it looked like moral decay, and when people were looking for why are we suffering this moral decay, it was because women weren't in the home.

Ms. HARRIS: You know, it's OK for a man to go around and cheat and hang out in the bars and expect the little woman to be home ready with a hot meal.

(Soundbite of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels")

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

Ms. BUFWACK: The song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," was banned on NBC radio network and on the Grand Ole Opry. It offended not only the country establishment, but offended the larger establishment as well.

Ms. HARRIS: And so it was pretty shocking, and on the other hand, 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 they were not represented on the airways.

Ms. BUFWACK: Kitty Wells would not describe herself as a feminist. There has always been a strain of songs in the folk tradition and in country music that spoke from the woman's point of view.

Ms. WELLS: I never really did any thinking too much about it because I always, you know, was pretty natural with the way I felt and the way, you know, I carried myself around. And, of course, after I made that hit with it, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," well, Capital Records got to recording the girl singers, and so now, we've got just about as many girl singers as there are men singers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: Back then, it wasn't really considered proper for a singer - a young singer starting out to ride around the country with a bunch of guys. You know, even if it was perfectly innocent and they were the guys in the band. She really paved the way for a lot of women to get on that bus and ride on down the road.

(Soundbite of "It wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels")

Ms. WELLS: (Singing) It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels, as you said in the words of your song. Too many times married men think they're still single. That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.

LYDEN: Emmylou Harris, Mary Bufwack, and Kitty Wells, herself, talking about the song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," which is added this year to the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Our story was produced by Ben Manilla and Devon Strolovitch at Media Mechanics. You can listen to all of the stories from this series at nprmusic.org.

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