Did country music ever have a wronged woman quite as wronged as Kitty Wells? Not even her greatest successor, Loretta Lynn, could pull off a run of heartache songs quite like Wells, the Grand Ole Opry veteran who died Monday at the grand old age of 92. With a list of hits that included titles like "There's Poison In Your Heart," "Lonely Side Of Town," "Living As Strangers," "A Woman Half My Age," "I Gave My Wedding Dress Away," and the immortal "Will Your Lawyer Talk To God," she sometimes seemed like America's most cheated-upon woman.
But she could also give as good as she got, and boldly proclaimed that she had a sexual past of her own in songs like "I Don't Claim To Be An Angel," before Loretta and Dolly Parton followed the same courageous path. In terms of lyrical content, Wells was country's sexiest female star in the 1950s, openly addressing the cheating themes that had been the sole province of honky-tonk men in the genre. But the adult content of the songs stood in ironic contrast to her stage presence, which couldn't have been more demure, and her personal life, characterized by a seven-decade-long marriage to fellow singer Johnnie Wright.
Wells set the aggrieved tone with her very first No. 1 single—which was also the very first No. 1 for a female singer ever, on the then-eight-year-old country chart. That was the 1952 classic "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels," a female-centric answer song to the complaints aired in Hank Thompson's prior hit, "The Wild Side Of Life." She came back in 1953 with another great answer song, this time following up Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair" with her own "Paying For That Back Street Affair."
She didn't spend her entire musical career laying the blame on Adam. She could play Eve, herself, sometimes. In "I Don't Claim To Be An Angel," her character admitted, "My life's been full of sin/But when I met you darling, that all came to an end." And her sinning ways could occasionally be in the present tense. In "One By One," she and duet partner Red Foley created the template for a lot of Loretta/Conway Twitty pairings to follow, as a naughty couple regretfully agreed: "We'll pay for our lies one by one."
But she's most remembered not as the temptress, but as the woman left home alone, as in "Making Believe," in which her fantasy life, of course, revolves around pretending "that you still love me."
Wells could even find a way to make a gospel album into a bit of a bummer. The cover of her 1959 entry into religious country, Dust On The Bible, is famous for its literal cover, which portrays the singer actually having done the finger test on a Good Book to demonstrate just how long good morals have lay unattended on the shelf.
Wells' accomplishments are so far in the past, and her retirement so long ago, that many country fans were surprised to learn she'd even still been alive. One of the few times her name was in the news in recent years was when her husband, Johnnie Wright, preceded her in death last year. The two country stars had been wed since 1937, when she was 18, setting a record that Tim and Faith will be hard-pressed to match.
But even with Wells having essentially retired from making records in the '70s and quit performing in 2000, country aficionados knew it would still be beyond the pale to ever proclaim anyone but her the Queen of Country Music, an honorific that belongs to her just as surely as Aretha will always be the queen of soul.
Wells's last recordings of note were collaborations with homage-paying younger stars. In 1987, she appeared on k.d. lang's Shadowland album on a "Honky Tonk Angels Medley" along with Lynn and Brenda Lee. In 1994, she made a guest appearance on a remake of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" cut by the trio of Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton.
Her official accolades include being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and receiving the Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. For most of the last two decades, she and Wright had quietly stayed out of the limelight, presumably not letting any dust gather on any Bibles and never venturing into the lonely side of town.
Wells leaves a legacy of loneliness—but, happily, on record only, so far as we know: "Just A Cheap Affair," "It's All Over But The Crying," "This White Circle On My Finger," "Cold And Lonely (Is The Forecast For Tonight)," "Unloved, Unwanted," "Heartbreak U.S.A.," "Your Wild Life's Gonna Get You Down," "Cheatin's a Sin," "Thou Shalt Not Steal," "A Wedding Ring Ago"... Her contention in her first big single might have been that honky-tonk angels were formed by the sins of men, but it's hard to see anything other than the hand of providence in a catalog this sterling as well as sin-laden.