Angel in the Shadows 

New Kitty Wells exhibit gives props to a female pioneer and inimitable country singer

New Kitty Wells exhibit gives props to a female pioneer and inimitable country singer

Kitty Wells is an inimitable, bedrock American singer, and she dwelled in this country's post-World War II shadows like any other product of that fractured era. As The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's new exhibit Kitty Wells: Queen of Country Music demonstrates, Wells is a pioneer who made her name with an epochal single that proved—at least initially—beyond the imagination of the country music industry as it existed in 1952. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" remains Wells' best-known recording, an inspired answer record and inadvertent feminist anthem whose two-and-a-half minutes open a window into the creation of modern country music.

Born on Wharf Avenue in Nashville on Aug. 19, 1919, Wells started out in life as Muriel Deason. Her father was a brakeman for the Tennessee Central Railroad. She grew up going to the Grand Ole Opry, and made her radio debut one Saturday afternoon afternoon in 1936 on Nashville's WSIX. In 1937 she married Johnnie Wright, a country singer and all-around hustler who worked as half of Johnnie & Jack, a duo in the mold of The Delmore Brothers. It was a wild, untamed era in show business, and sometime in the early 1940s Muriel Deason became Kitty Wells, after a 19th century ballad that had made its way into the country repertoire.

"Back then,The Carter Family was popular," Wells says from her home in Madison, Tenn. "There weren't a whole lot of artists, especially women artists. The Texas Daisy and Rachel [Veach], who worked with [Roy] Acuff, and Texas Ruby, I listened to them." As befit performers who drew inspiration from the airwaves, Johnnie & Jack—with Wells as part of the package—held forth on radio shows in Knoxville and Raleigh, N.C., throughout the mid-'40s. By 1948, the troupe had returned to Nashville. Johnnie & Jack played the Opry and made a few records that went nowhere. That spring, they moved on to ring out the first broadcast of another radio show, "The Louisiana Hayride,"and once again, Wells was a featured singer in the act.

"It was really nice, you know, working out of Shreveport," Wells says. "Course, when I went down there, I didn't go down there to work. But after we got there we started working—we had to do early shows on the radio station to advertise the show dates. We'd go out just far enough where we could get back in, you know."

Still, "Hayride" and the Opry each had their requirements, and it seems obvious that Wright and Wells thought in terms of Nashville success. (As Wells says, "When you worked the Opry, they wanted you back on Saturday night.") After a period in the late '40s during which Wells recorded a few singles that RCA barely distributed, she retired for over two years.

Wells might have given permanent retirement a thought, but it's likely her ambitions matched Wright's. As she says, "I thought about it, but seems like things worked out that I didn't." She got her shot with Decca Records on the strength of Johnnie & Jack's 1951 country hit "Poison Love," which brought Wright and Wells to the attention of Decca executive Paul Cohen, who suggested Wells cut "It Wasn't God." Written by Louisiana producer Jay Miller, the song was conceived as a riposte to "The Wild Side of Life," a 1952 country No. 1 for Hank Thompson.

You can see Miller's original manuscript for "It Wasn't God" in the exhibit; it looks as though it were composed in a sandstorm. (Also on display is the aluminum bass fiddle Wright played on the recording itself.) If an answer song can be a work of genius, "It Wasn't God" qualifies: Wells sings it as if over the din of a crowded bar, and her delivery is comic, aggrieved and unyielding. "It brings memories of when I was a trustful wife," she sings. Her vibrato carves a groove where each note can settle, but her approach is implacable and unsentimental.

It's a complex performance, and Queen of Country Music conveys the rich relationship between Wells' ambition and her persona as the gingham-clad super-matron of country music. As curator Mick Buck says, "She was a soft-spoken, modest, nonthreatening performer, and yet that was what it took in the early '50s for a woman to gain that acceptance." The exhibit shows that side of Wells: a gingham dress and a photograph of Wells at home in her kitchen, fussing over her pots and pans like any other proud suburban wife and mother.

Yet, as a text panel in the exhibit rightly suggests, there is disquiet in "It Wasn't God" and later Wells singles such as "Mommy for a Day," "I Gave My Wedding Dress Away" and the astounding "Will Your Lawyer Talk to God." Like a film noir housewife, Wells clings to domesticity but has other ideas of her own. "When the war ended in 1945, [women] were expected to return to their roles as homemakers," the text reads. "Many did not."

For Wells, the issues raised by her work aren't irrelevant, but that wasn't what she had on her mind in the '50s. "Well, everybody thought that," Wells says about feminist readings of the song. "But when I recorded it, it never entered my mind. When 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels' first came out, of course, all the radio stations were playing it, and I sang it on the Opry and then they would stop me. They just wouldn't let me. I didn't know what was in it they didn't like. They didn't let me sing it for a while and then it got so popular, and they let me start singing it."

It's Wells' prowess as a singer that assures her permanent place in pop-music history. She projects loudly, with a repose that results in poised performances such as 1955's "I'd Rather Stay Home." Every note floats, with or without vibrato, and every note has a clean, wooden floor it returns to. "I don't want to roam / I'd rather stay home," she sings, and lowers the boom on the final word in a way that suggests tremendous, wounded pride. Throughout her classic recordings, Wells' voice shades from austerity to yearning in a heartbeat, and the session musicians lay down a two-step that almost becomes a shuffle, with Shot Jackson's pedal-steel licks an uncanny marvel.

Wells talks about her work in unpretentious terms. "Country music, most of 'em is good songs, you know, that tell a story. Somebody writes something that happened in real life. Some of them, they're fantasy songs, but they're still good songs. They kind of pertain to your life." As she says of her '50s and '60s records, "I sang those songs just like I would have normally sang them. It turned out pretty good, I thought." That's the kind of modest, unassuming language any heroine might use.

But Queen of Country Music displays an amazing photograph of Wells that bears the same kind of dreamy contemplation as her music. There she is, holding her guitar and looking away from the camera, looking as impossibly beautiful and unreadable as Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. She looks like an actress trying to find a way to express the distance between the illusion of conformity and her own perfectly reasonable desires.

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