Kitty Wells has died. She wasn't just a singer but a pioneer and a honked-off woman who got even with a song. I love that kind of music -- Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" takedown of Neil Young's "Southern Man" comes to mind. Wells' first and biggest hit "It wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" falls into the same category:
But Ms. Wells’s record proved to be much more than just “another song.” It was a rejoinder to Hank Thompson’s No. 1 hit “Wild Side of Life,” a brooding lament in which the singer blames a woman he picks up in a bar for breaking up his marriage, and it became her signature song.
“Honky Tonk Angels” resonated with women who had been outraged by Mr. Thompson’s record, which called into question their morals and their increasing social and sexual freedom. At a time when divorce rates were rising and sexual mores changing in postwar America, the song, with lyrics by J. D. Miller, resounded like a protofeminist anthem.
“As I sit here tonight, the jukebox playin’/The tune about the wild side of life,” Ms. Wells sings, she reflects on married men pretending to be single and causing “many a good girl to go wrong.”
NBC banned it, and at first the Grand Ole Opry wouldn't let her play it there. But the song became so popular, even as a cross-over on the Top 40 charts, that everybody eventually relented. If you listen to the song, it can be hard to appreciate, even for country fans like me, because it has an old-fashioned style and sound from a particular era in country music history. But realize that her success convinced reluctant record labels that female artists were indeed worth investing in. Without Kitty Wells, there would have been no Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, no Shania Twain or Patsy Cline or Taylor Swift.