Country pioneer Kitty Wells, an icon often hailed as the “Queen of Country Music,” died today at the age of 92, following complications from a stroke. Wells became the first woman to score a No. 1 country hit with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, a song J.D Miller wrote as a response to Hank Thompson’s hit “The Wild Side Of Life.”
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” epitomized what made Wells such a fascinating and fascinatingly contradictory figure. The song addresses the sexual double standard wracking country music, pop culture, and society as a whole by pointing out that the wild women Thompson scolded in song had often been led astray by unfaithful men themselves.
In her heartrending story-songs, Wells sang from the perspective of long-suffering wives, cheated-upon spouses, and other domestic goddesses forced by fate to deal with the foolishness, drunkenness, and infidelity of men. Wells gave a voice to the voiceless, articulating the fears, desires, and needs of women all too often ignored by a pop world that worships youth and beauty.
K.D Lang, a much different kind of country icon, paid homage to Wells when she included her on “Honky Tonk Angels Medley” alongside fellow female pioneers Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn on the Shadowlands album. Wells also had the distinction of becoming the second woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, following Tammy Wynette.
Wells embodied the embattled protector of the home fires of marriage in her alternately defiant and sentimental songs; accordingly, Wells was married to country singer Johnnie Wright for over 70 years, a bond that ended with Wright’s death in 2011 at 97. Wells was an unlikely pioneer, a proud defender of traditional values who forever changed the way women were perceived in Nashville, and she kicked down the door for generations of female artists.