Songwriters Friends

Kitty Wells was a thirty-three-year-old wife and mother when her immortal 1952 recording of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” suddenly made her a star. Other female country singers of her day were trying their hands at hard-living, honky-tonk sounds, but it was the intense and piercing style of Kitty Wells, with her gospel-touched vocals and tearful restraint, that resonated with country audiences of the time and broke the industry barriers for women.

Born Muriel Ellen Deason in Nashville, her country roots went deep. Her father and uncle were country musicians, her mother a gospel singer. In 1934, with the Depression at its height, Wells dropped out of school to work at the Washington Manufacturing Company, where she was paid nine dollars a week to iron shirts. With her two sisters and a cousin, Wells also performed on radio, the four of them broadcasting as the Deason Sisters.

On October 30, 1937, at age eighteen, Wells married Johnnie Wright. The two of them and Wright’s sister Louise performed as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls. In 1939 Wright and Jack Anglin formed the duo Johnnie & Jack.

Wells performed as the “girl singer” with Johnnie & Jack on radio shows as they traveled throughout the South in the early 1940s. It was during this time that Wright began to refer to his wife as “Kitty Wells,” a name taken from an old Pickard Family tune.

During World War II Anglin served in the army and Wright worked at a DuPont chemical factory north of Nashville. But after the war, Johnnie and Jack reunited and Wells traveled with them to join the new Louisiana Hayride on KWKH in Shreveport. As “Rag Doll,” she spun records and sold quilting supplies.

Wells’s recordings for RCA in 1949 and 1950 found no success, but Johnnie & Jack’s “Poison Love” took them to the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. At this time, Wells was persuaded to record an answer song to “The Wild Side of Life,” a Hank Thompson hit that featured the line “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels.”

Thinking of the $125 recording payment, Wells went into Owen Bradley’s studio on May 3, 1952, to record “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” for Decca Records. The single took off during the summer and sold more than 800,000 copies in its initial release. It also crossed over to Billboard’s pop charts, hitting #27.

The song’s sentiments are similar to 1894’s “She Is More to Be Pitied than Censured,” with its premise that deceitful men are responsible for fallen women. The record was controversial and received some resistance from radio executives, but audiences couldn’t get enough of it.

Her subsequent records followed this pattern of deep emotion, restrained hurt, and a woman’s point of view. Her other honky-tonk ballad classics include “Release Me” (1954), “Making Believe” (1955), and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1958). Contemporary themes and modern ways were highlights of songs like “Your Wild Life’s Gonna Get You Down,” “I Heard the Jukebox Playing,” “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God?,” “Broken Marriage Vows,” “Cheatin’s a Sin,” “Mommy for a Day,” and “A Woman Half My Age.” On Wells’s records, sorrowful men and women acted out their emotional dramas through her plaintive vocals accompanied by crying steel guitar.

In her stage show Wells was unpretentious, proper, and even old-fashioned in her gingham dresses with full skirts, rickrack, and puffed sleeves. In her private life she was family-oriented and without controversy, crisis, or scandal. But in her songs Wells could be the rejected woman, the barroom sinner, worldly-wise, a victim of her own passion, even morally weak.

As the top female country star of her generation she accumulated thirty-five Billboard Top Ten records and eighty-one charted singles. She starred in her own syndicated TV show in 1968, and her last major hit was in 1971. (Her and Wright’s three children - daughters Ruby and Carol Sue, and son Bobby - all became part of The Kitty Wells - Johnnie Wright Family Show.) She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and was nominated for a 1989 Grammy Award for her “Honky-Tonk Angels Medley” with k. d. lang, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee. In 1991, during the Grammy show, Wells was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award, along with Bob Dylan, Marian Anderson, and John Lennon. She was the first female country singer to receive the award, and at that time only the third country performer overall, following Roy Acuff and Hank Williams.

Ultimately, Wells’s great achievement was defying the accepted country music wisdom of her time, which warned that women don’t sell records and can’t headline shows. Her success led record companies to open their doors to other women, and to experiment with new themes and images for women, thereby indelibly changing country music forever.


American Quartet
Andrews Sisters
Louis Armstrong (Satchmo)
Fred Astaire
Chet Atkins
Gene Austin (Voice of the Southland)
Gene Autry
Nora Bayes
Brook Benton
Ben Bernie
Connee Boswell
Fanny Brice
Henry Burr
Cab Calloway
Glen Campbell
Albert Campbell
Carter Family (First Family of Country Music)
Enrico Caruso
Ray Charles
Patsy Cline
Larry Clinton
Rosemary Clooney
Nat Cole (King)
Arthur Collins
Perry Como
Bing Crosby
Bob Crosby
Frank Crumit
Vic Damone
Sammy Davis Jr.
Doris Day
Tommy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
Cliff Edwards
Ruth Etting
Shep Fields
Eddie Fisher
Ella Fitzgerald
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Connie Francis
Aretha Franklin (Queen of Soul)
Lefty Frizzell
Jan Garber
Judy Garland
George J. Gaskin (The Silver Voice Irish Tenor)
Marvin Gaye
Benny Goodman (King of Swing)
Glen Gray
Byron G. Harlan
Marion Harris
Charles Harrison
Haydn Quartet
Dick Haymes
Horace Heidt
Woody Herman
Billie Holiday (Lady Day)
Whitney Houston
Eddy Howard
Ink Spots
Harry James
Lewis James
Al Jolson
Ada Jones
George Jones
Sammy Kaye
Hal Kemp
Wayne King (Waltz King)
Pee Wee King
Kay Kyser
Frankie Laine
Brenda Lee
Ted Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis (The Killer)
Guy Lombardo
Vincent Lopez
Harry MacDonough
Freddy Martin
Dean Martin
Johnny Mathis
John McCormack
Glenn Miller
Mills Brothers
Vaughn Monroe
Russ Morgan
Billy Murray (The Denver Nightingale)
J.W. Myers
Ozzie Nelson
Olivia Newton-John
George Olsen
Original Dixieland Jazz Band
Vess L. Ossman (The King of the Banjo)
Buck Owens
Patti Page
Minnie Pearl
Peerless Quartet
Peter, Paul & Mary
Elvis Presley (The King)
Ray Price
Prince's Orchestra
Dan Quinn
Leo Reisman
Paul Robeson
Roy Rogers
Linda Ronstadt
Diana Ross
Ben Selvin
Artie Shaw
Nat Shilkret
Dinah Shore
Frank Sinatra
Bessie Smith (Empress of the Blues)
Sousa's Band
Len Spencer
Dusty Springfield
Jo Stafford
Frank Stanley
Kay Starr
Cal Stewart
Barbra Streisand
The 4 Seasons
The 5th Dimension
The Byrds
The Carter Family
The Commodores
The Drifters
The Everly Brothers
The Four Tops
The Impressions
The Miracles
The Platters
The Righteous Brothers
The Spinners
The Supremes
The Temptations
Ernest Tubb (Texas Troubadour)
Sophie Tucker
Van & Schenck
Walter Van Brunt
Sarah Vaughan
Fred Waring
Dionne Warwick
Ted Weems
Kitty Wells
Paul Whiteman
Margaret Whiting
Bert Williams
Andy Williams
Teddy Wilson
Tammy Wynette