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Kitty Wells Queen Of Country RIP
The Quietus , July 17th, 2012 12:35

Tim Coooper salutes the true queen of country music who was also the genre's first woman to score a number one

In the beginning, country music was a man's man's man's world.

Tales of cheatin', drinkin' and fightin' were the bedrock of the "white man's blues" in the early days and the men who sang them - men like Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Rodgers - often lived the lives of which they sang. When Hank Thompson topped the charts in early 1952 with a slice of old-school misogyny called 'The Wild Side Of Life' ("I didn't know God made honky tonk angels...") an enterprising executive at Decca decided to commission an "answer song" - 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels' - to be sung by a woman.

Kitty Wells (born Muriel Deason in Nashville and one of the few country stars actually to grow up in Music City) was considering retirement at the time. Already in her mid-30s, she had been singing since the 1930s, first with her kinfolk as The Deason Sisters, and then with her husband and his sister as Johnnie Right & the Harmony Girls. But her career failed to take off and, following a failed attempt to convert her to a gospel singer, she was disillusioned with the business.

When approached to record the song, her initial instinct was to turn it down. But needs must and she was swayed by the $125 fee: the union scale payment for recording a song. Much to her surprise ("I never thought it would be a hit," she confessed later) the song, with its outspoken proto-feminist lyric that put the blame for the wayward women of Thompson's tune firmly on the unfaithful men who chased them ("It's a shame that all the blame is on us women") went on to top the US country charts for six weeks in 1952.

Reinforcing just how male-dominated the music biz was, Kitty Wells was the first female country singer ever to reach No.1 - and she swiftly became country's first female superstar, earning the enduring nickname The Queen of Country.

Wells followed it with another "answer song" - 'Paying For That Back Street Affair' - and racked up a string of other Top Ten hits in the 1950s and 1960s, going on to have a successful syndicated TV show with her family, The Kitty Wells / Johnny Wright Family Show, and running her own record label. Her chart success places her at No.6 in Billboard's official list of the most successful female country singers of all time and she paved the way in what was a male-dominated industry for the likes of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette.

Quite why Kitty Wells failed to gain the same level of recognition in the UK is a mystery; perhaps because her heyday predated the birth of pop music and the subsequent media attention it received in the wake of Elvis and The Beatles. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Grammys in 1991 - making her only the third country singer (and first female one) to be given the honour. Her last hit, 'I Thank You For The Roses', was in 1979, at the age of 60.

She was - and will always be - the Queen of Country Music.

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