Interview: Kitty Wells
Interview: Kitty Wells
Near the end of a two-hour program devoted to Kitty Wells, interviewer Eddie Stubbs told everyone to listen closely to these four words: “Poise, professionalism, dignity, and class.” He then turned to the special guest, held out his hand in her direction and added, “This woman embodies those traits.”
The two hundred attendees crowded into the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Ford Theater on a pleasant Saturday afternoon already had seen Wells display those traits. Stubbs, the renowned WSM air personality, had led the Hall of Fame singer through the story of her life, on stage and off, in a program that helped celebrate the opening of Kitty Wells: Queen of Country Music, a new exhibit at the museum.
Throughout the interview, Wells—who will celebrate her eighty-ninth birthday on August 30—spoke with humble dignity while maintaining an air of poise and southern class. She was, indeed, the ultimate professional. More than that, she seemed wholly human and down-to-earth, qualities that define her music as well as her character.
“Every single female artist in this business, whether they are a performing artist or a musician, and regardless of whether they are mainstream country music, traditional, bluegrass, folk, gospel—whatever—they owe a debt of gratitude to this lady, whether they realize it or not,” Stubbs said to open the program. “She was the first woman to really open the doors and knock down the barriers for women in country music.”
Wells enjoyed the first #1 Billboard hit for a solo female country artist when her signature tune, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” topped the charts in 1952. She went on to enjoy thirty-eight Top Ten songs on the Billboard charts during a career that has lasted seventy years.
But, as Stubbs noted, Wells’s influence extends beyond her groundbreaking first hit and longevity. “The success that Kitty Wells had, and the way she handled that success and the role model that she became, made her respected and admired by people the world over,” he said. “Today in country music, so many people who come along cite folks like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn as influences, and they are great talents in their own right. But if you were to talk to them, they’d tell you it didn’t begin with them. It began with Kitty Wells.”
Before bringing Wells out on stage, Stubbs introduced a rare video clip of her performing “Making Believe” during a segment of the Purina Grand Ole Opry Show on NBC-TV in 1955. The clip revealed the plainspoken, emotionally believable style that stands as Wells’s trademark.
Characteristically soft-spoken and modest, Wells sometimes answered her interview questions with a shy, one-word response. When Stubbs asked her if she knew her age in the Opry clip, she paused and said quietly, “No.” The crowd responded with a loud burst of laughter, a sound that filled the Ford Theater regularly Saturday afternoon.
Born Ellen Muriel Deason in Nashville, Wells explained that she got her stage name when a radio executive suggested her given name didn’t sound like that of a star. The singer’s lifelong husband and music partner, Johnnie Wright, took the new name from an old folk song, “Kitty Wells.”
Wells recalled attending an Opry performance in its early years when it was still staged at the WSM Studios. By her teens, she got a job singing on WSIX radio with her cousin Bessie in a duo named the Deason Sisters.
She met her husband because of her interest in singing. Wright’s sister, Louise, lived next door to Wells and her family. Wright already had begun performing, too, and his sister told him that “a pretty girl who lives next door likes to sing,” and he should hear her. “I got my guitar and sang some for him, and I guess he liked it,” she quipped.
Asked what attracted him to her, she said, “Well, I liked his looks, and I liked his family, I really liked his sister who lived next door,” she said. The couple married in Franklin, Kentucky, on October 30, 1937, after a two-year courtship. Wright was twenty-three years old, and Wells was eighteen. The marriage certificate, on display in the museum exhibit, shows that Wells told authorities, at the time, that she was three years older, because, she said, “Back then they said you have to be twenty-one to get married.”
Stubbs then asked, “Is it safe to say, Kitty, that this was the only time the Queen of Country Music told a fib?” Wells responded, “Well, pretty much,” to another loud ring of laughter from the crowd. The couple celebrated their seventieth anniversary in October 2007.
Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Johnnie Wright formed a duo with Jack Anglin, Johnnie & Jack, after Anglin had married Wright’s sister, Louise. In 1941, Johnnie & Jack began performing on a radio station in Greensboro, North Carolina, moving their families there. “It was scary packing up and leaving and not knowing what was going to happen,” Wells said.
The couple moved through several cities to take jobs as radio performers, living in Charleston, South Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; Shreveport, Louisiana; Raleigh, North Carolina; Decatur, Georgia; and back in Nashville. Wells talked about the difficulty of traveling rural back roads in the 1930s and 1940s to perform in small towns across the South. The band and the instruments all had to fit in one car, at a time when it might take two hours or more to travel thirty miles.
In Shreveport, Johnnie & Jack helped launch the Louisiana Hayride radio program on KWKH, a program that became known as “The Cradle of the Stars” because of all the big-name artists who started there. Among the artists the couple befriended were Hank and Audrey Williams, who performed on the Hayride in 1948 and 1949. “They were really nice people,” Wells said. “They’d have us over to their house, and we’d have them come to our house, and we were together quite a bit back then.” RCA signed Johnnie & Jack and Kitty Wells in 1949, but only Johnnie & Jack had success with the label. After Wells left the company—“I don’t know that RCA knew what they had,” Stubbs said—Wright pitched her to several record labels, and all passed. Wells figured she’d leave the record business and become a full-time housewife. But then Decca Records executive Paul Cohen saw Wright at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop one night. He told Wright he had a song he wanted Wells to record.
Wright went home and played the song for Wells. She had reservations, but agreed to record it. “I told Johnnie, ‘I’ll record it if you want me to, because at least we’ll make the session fee out of it,’” Wells said. She was paid “about $100,” she recalled.
Wells didn’t pay attention to the song afterward, at least at first, because she didn’t expect much to happen. But then one day she got a call from Audrey Williams. “She told me she had just come back from Montgomery, and every station she tuned into was playing ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,’” Wells said. “I was really surprised, you know. I didn’t even know the song was released. As far as the radio stations playing it so much, I’d never dreamed of that.”
As Stubbs explained, the song did more than give Wells a full-time career in country music. “It didn’t just change things for you, it changed things for all the women in the country music business,” he said. Wells would release twenty-one more Top Ten country songs in the 1950s, and soon other female singers also became country music stars.
Stubbs also credited others important to Wells’s career, most notably her husband Johnnie Wright, who provided a steady presence as her manager and touring partner, even helping her find her songs. Wells also spoke of Owen Bradley, the Decca Records executive who produced all of her well-known hits. “Owen always got me to sing just as high as I could in those days,” she said. Stubbs asked, “Didn’t he tell you that was where the money was?” Wells replied, “Yes, he did.”
Stubbs noted the important role that steel guitarist Shot Jackson and fiddler Paul Warren played in Wells’s sound. He played samples, including “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” telling the audience to listen for the contribution of those two instruments and how well they played behind Wells’s voice. Wells also talked about duet partners Red Foley and Webb Pierce, among others.
Even after Wells stopped having radio hits, she continued to draw large audiences with her family show, featuring her husband and children, Ruby, Bobby, and Carol Sue. The couple maintained a good relationship with concert promoters, following Wright’s theory that he wanted their performance price to be reasonable so that the promoters made money, too.
Near the program’s end, Stubbs persuaded Wells to talk about her devotion to her fans, and how she’s often stayed for hours after shows to sign autographs and greet everyone who wanted to meet her. Stubbs recalled asking her one time why she did it, and she replied, “These people came to see us, and they bought our records and our souvenir books and our pictures, and this is the least we can do for them. After all, these are the people who bought us our home.”
Wells illustrated her connection to fans after the program by spending more than an hour signing autographs, staying until the Museum Store closed. From her patient and unassuming attitude on the Ford Theater stage, to her willingness to please her fans afterward, the Queen of Country Music, even at age eighty-eight, continues to provide a role model for how country stars should conduct themselves.