On this date in 1952, how women were viewed within country music forever changed.
There’s no denying a huge gap in amount of play that male artists get compared to female artists on the radio. I will say that things have certainly improved over the past few years, with artists like Morgan Wade, Lainey Wilson, Carly Pearce, Sierra Ferrell, and Hailey Whittersturning into stars, but undoubtedly, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
But at one point, things were much, much worse and it took some serious effort by some of the most iconic artists in the genre’s history to push through barriers and get women in the spotlight.
From Patsy Cline to Dolly Parton, Reba to Martinato Shania, there’s no shortage of women who deserve an immense amount of credit, but if it wasn’t for one trailblazer, it’s possible none of them would have gotten to the levels they did.
Kitty Wells (real name Ellen Muriel Deason) was born on August 30th, 1919 in Nashville, Tennessee to a family of musicians. Her father, who worked as a brakeman on the Tennessee Central Railroad, taught her to play guitar and she grew up singing with him, her brothers, and her mother, who was a Gospel singer. As teenagers, she and her sisters performed on a local radio station under the name the Deason Sisters.
She married an aspiring artist, Johnnie Wright, at age 18 and the two of them, along with Johnnie’s sister, formed a group called Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls (easy to see who the focus was on there). Eventually, they formed another group with Johnnie’s brother-in-law, Jack Anglin, and all four went on tour under the name Tennessee Hillbillies and later the Tennessee Mountain Boys, with the women providing backing vocals only.
It was at this time she took the stage name Kitty Wells based on an old folk song titled “Sweet Kitty Wells.”
The group signed with RCA Victor in 1949, but the label dropped Kitty shortly after, because they didn’t like to promote women.
While that could have been the end of her story, Kitty never gave up hope and continued pursuing music, until a fateful day in 1952 when Paul Cohen approached her with a song he just knew would be a hit.
The song was a female response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side Of Life,” which was at the time the most popular song in the genre’s history, spending 15 weeks on top of the Billboard country charts.
Thompson’s song speaks of a women who left her man to pursue fun in the honky tonks:
“I didn’t know God made Honky Tonk angels I might have known you’d never make a wife You gave up the only one that ever loved you And went back to the wild side of life”
Well, a man by the name of J. D. “Jay” Miller wrote a response to this song from the female’s perspective and needed an artist to record it, so he enlisted Cohen to help find just the right person.
Kitty at the time was signed to Decca Records and agreed to cut the song. In fact, it was at her very first session that she recorded “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Playing off the melody of “The Wild Side Of Life,” the song pushed back harshly on the notion that faithless and wild women were to blame for many of the problems facing the country, a belief that was quite popular at the time.
“It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels As you said in the words of your song Too many times married men think they’re still single That has caused many a good girl to go wrong
It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women It’s not true that only you men feel the same From the start most every heart that’s ever broken Was because there always was a man to blame”
Obviously, it was quite a strong statement, especially considering the male-dominated, very conservative atmosphere in country music, but despite the resistance it initially faced, such as being banned from the Grand Ole Opry and NBC’s Prince Albert program, fans absolutely loved it.
The song shot up the charts and went to number one on the Billboard Country charts on August 23rd, 1952 and stayed there for 6 weeks. It was the first time a solo female artist had ever taken the top spot within the genre. It eventually outsold “The Wild Side Of Life,” a clear rebuttal of the idea that female artists couldn’t be a draw on their own.
It was a monumental moment for women in country and opened the door for many others to follow, including Goldie Hill, who became the second female to take the chart’s top spot in February of the following year, and the Davis Sisters, who topped it in November of 1953.
Both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn cited her directly as a major influence but it’s undeniable that every female artist owes a bit of credit to Kitty for being willing to take a stance (although by some accounts she only agreed to do it for the $125 recording fee) and opening the door to a vast amount of talent just waiting for an opportunity.
It seems only fitting that a clapback song was the first to go number one in a genre known for its outlaws, and whether she wanted to be or not, Kitty Wells will be forever marked in history as a rebel.