Kitty Wells Biography

Muriel Ellen Deason, 30 August 1919, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. The family relocated to Humphries County but returned to Nashville in 1928, where Deason’s father, who played guitar and sang for local dances, worked as a brakeman for the Tennessee Central Railroad. She grew up singing in the church choir, learned to play guitar and in 1934, she dropped out of school to work in a local shirt factory. The following year, she teamed with her sisters Mabel and Willie Mae and their cousin, Bessie Choate, to form the singing Deason Sisters. In 1936, they appeared on WSIX Nashville singing ‘Jealous Hearted Me’, and were cut off in mid-song by the station, who for some reason believed the song to be too risqué for their listeners. The audience disagreed and the girls were given a regular early-morning programme.

In 1937, Muriel met aspiring country singer Johnnie Wright and on 30 October that year, the two were married. Soon afterwards, the newlyweds and Wright’s sister Louise began appearing on radio station WSIX as Johnnie Wright And The Harmony Girls. In 1939, Wright and Muriel teamed up with Jack Anglin (their future brother-in-law), first appearing as Johnnie Wright And The Happy Roving Cowboys with Jack Anglin, later becoming Johnnie And Jack And The Tennessee Hillbillies, then the Tennessee Mountain Boys. In 1943, Muriel Deason first became known as Kitty Wells. Wright chose the name from an old song popularized on the Grand Ole Opry by the Pickard Family and the Vagabonds. Over these years, Wells did not always sing on a regular basis with Wright, owing to the fact that, by this time, she had two children, Ruby Wright and Bobby Wright, to look after; a second daughter, Carol Sue Wright, followed.

Wells made her first solo recordings for RCA - Victor Records in 1949, one song being ‘Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet’, now generally rated to be the first recording, on a major label, of a song that has become a country gospel standard. A further session the next year failed to produce a hit and she left the label. In December 1951, she moved back to Nashville and with Johnnie And Jack becoming members of the Grand Ole Opry in January 1952, she decided to retire. However, for the session fee, she had been persuaded by Wright and Paul Cohen of Decca Records to record a demo of a female answer song to Hank Thompson’s then current US country number 1, ‘The Wild Side Of Life’. On 3 May 1952, under the production of Owen Bradley, she recorded ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’, the lyrics of which blamed unfaithful men for creating unfaithful women. Two months later, unaware that it had been released, Kitty Wells found she had recorded a future million-seller. By 8 August, it was beginning a six-week stay at number 1 in the country charts and had become a Top 30 pop hit. The publishers of ‘The Wild Side Of Life’ sued on the grounds that their song’s melody had been used. Since both songs had used the tune of the old songs ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’ and ‘The Great Speckled Bird’, the case was thrown out of court. ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ was the first feminist song in country music and the recording made Kitty Wells country music’s first female singing star in her own right, giving her the distinction of becoming the first female country singer to have a number 1 record (initially The Grand Ole Opry management felt the lyrics were unsuitable, but an intervention by the influential Roy Acuff saw them relent).

Inevitably, Wells’ retirement was shelved and by the end of the 50s, she had registered 35 successive Top 20 country hits, 24 making the Top 10. There were further answer songs in ‘Paying For That Back Street Affair’, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘I’ll Always Be Your Fraulein’, and a less successful one called ‘My Cold Cold Heart Is Melted Now’. During this time, as one of several duet hits with Red Foley, ‘One By One’ became a country number 1 in 1954. She also had Top 10 duets with Webb Pierce, including ‘Oh, So Many Years’ and ‘Finally’. She also recorded with Acuff. In 1959, Decca took the unusual step of signing her to a lifetime contract. During the 60s, Wells’ list of chart hits extended to almost 70 and although only ‘Heartbreak USA’ (1961) made number 1, there were 11 more that made the Top 10. These included ‘Left To Right’ and ‘Unloved Unwanted’. The hits slowed down during the 70s, the last two coming in 1979 and taking her total to 81 in all.

From the 50s through to the end of the 70s, Wells toured extensively, making personal appearances not only in the USA and Canada but all over the world (she made her first appearance in Britain at the 1974 Wembley Festival). After Jack Anglin’s death in 1963, Johnnie Wright toured with his wife and family as the Kitty Wells And Johnnie Wright Family Show. In 1969, they hosted a syndicated television show that ran for many years. In the early 70s, she severed her connections with Decca (by then MCA Records) and signed with southern rock label Capricorn Records. Backed by members of the Allman Brothers Band and Marshall Tucker Band, she recorded 1974’s Forever Young (the title track was a Bob Dylan song - a daring move for a traditional country singer at the time). This sublime country soul collection was roundly ignored by the blinkered country market and Wright ordered the album to be pulled from the shelves within weeks of its release. Wells returned to straight country the year after with Open Up Your Heart, and in 1976 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. She continued to record for several minor labels during later decades, including in 1989, two albums for Step One with Owen Bradley, the man who had produced her million-seller at Decca 37 years previously. Ten years later, Wells and Wright performed their final concert on New Year’s Eve 2000 at the Nashville Nightlife Theater.

Over the years Wells has won many awards, including being voted Billboard’s Female Country Artiste from 1953-65, but her greatest award came in 1976, when she was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. The plaque noted: ‘In true country tradition her sincere vocal stylings convey the real feeling of the songs, be they happy or sad’. Many of her hits were country weepies such as ‘Mommy For A Day’, ‘I Gave My Wedding Dress Away’, ‘This White Circle On My Finger’ and ‘I Hope My Divorce Is Never Granted’. There is little doubt that her successes opened the way for many subsequent female country music singers. In 1952, Kitty Wells was named the Queen Of Country Music by Fred Rose and in the opinions of country traditionalists, she still holds her title with dignity and sincerity. She has, as country historian Bill C. Malone noted, ‘preserved an image of wholesomeness and domesticity that was far removed from the world she often sang about’.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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