Country singer Kitty Wells, a trailblazer for female recording artists whose career spanned over 60 years, died yesterday at her home in Nashville due to complications from a stroke. She was 92 years old.
Wells began making music as a teenager when she performed with her sisters on a Nashville-area radio station in 1936. She spent time in bands with her husband, Johnnie Wright, but success eluded her until 1952, when she agreed to record a version of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in 1952.
The song, a response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” made Wells a controversial figure in country music at the time; radio stations refused to play the record, and the Grand Ole Opry banned her for a period of time. However, the song did end up becoming a hit, topping the country charts and making an appearance on the Billboard pop charts. The song’s success made Wells into country’s next big star, and it opened the door for more female country singers to make successful careers for themselves.
Wells’ career continued to ride high in the 1960s, and other country singers such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton followed the lead of “Honky Tonk Angels” by releasing songs that challenged the male/female dynamic in country music. By the 1970s, Wells began to lose her power on the charts, but she remained a large concert draw until her retirement in 2000.
Wells remains a dominant figure in American music as the person who opened the door for so many great artists who followed in her footsteps. She will be missed.