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Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Music star Kitty Wells dies at 92

By Terence McArdle
The Washington Post

Kitty Wells, a country singer with a piercing nasal twang who became one of the first female headliners in her profession and whose repertoire of tear-jerking songs about adultery and broken homes brought a woman's perspective to a male-dominated genre, died July 16 at her home in Madison, Tenn., after a stroke. She was 92.

Starting with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," Ms. Wells achieved 51 hits in the Billboard country Top 20 from 1952 to 1966. Her relentless touring on a circuit of county fairs, fire-department carnivals and small-town auditoriums paved the way for later female entertainers in country music, including Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.

Part of Ms. Wells's appeal was the contrast between the harrowing songs that became her trademark and her wholesome appearance as a demure Southern housewife in a flowing gingham dress.

Ms. Wells was a 33-year-old homemaker and part-time singer when producer Paul Cohen at Decca Records approached her in 1952 about singing "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." It proved her breakthrough.

Written by a man, J.D. Miller, the lyrics cited male neglect and adultery as the reason behind a wife's infidelity. It was intended as a riposte to Hank Thompson's hit of that same year, "The Wild Side of Life," an ode to an unfaithful wife.

Ms. Wells sang:

"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"

Nashville songwriters gave Ms. Wells further hits, mostly country ballads dealing with heartbreak, divorce and the wages of sin. The very titles — "Making Believe," "I Can't Stop Loving You" (later a pop hit for Ray Charles), "Mommy For a Day," "Will Your Lawyer Talk To God" and "A Woman Half My Age" — implied an impassioned suffering and near martyrdom.

"Most of them don't pertain to my life," Ms. Wells told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1993. She added that "Honky Tonk Angels" was "just a way for the womenfolk to get back at the men."

Her revue, the Kitty Wells-Johnnie Wright Family Show, lived up to its name. Her husband, Johnnie Wright of the Johnnie and Jack duo, managed and performed with her. Their three children, Ruby, Carol Sue and Bobby Wright, spent summers on the tour bus and later joined them as performers.

In 1991, Ms. Wells received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement — the first female country singer to receive the honor.

Loretta Lynn wrote in her memoir, "Coal Miner's Daughter," that she was inspired by songs in which Ms. Wells presented "the women's point of view, which is different from the man's. And I always remembered that when I started writing songs."

Ms. Wells was born in Nashville into a family of country and gospel musicians. The stage name Kitty Wells, from a folk song "Sweet Kitty Wells," was given to her by her husband.

As a Depression-era teenager, Ms. Wells dropped out of high school to take a job laundering shirts for $9 a week. With two sisters and a cousin, she also sang on the radio. The four were billed as the Deason Sisters.

At 18, Ms. Wells married Wright, whom she had met when his sister Louise moved next door to her. The three soon performed together as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls. In 1939, when Wright and Ms. Wells' brother-in-law, Jack Anglin, started a string band, Johnnie and Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys, Ms. Wells was a featured "girl singer."

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