Despite the hits, the 60-plus year career touring as the “Queen of Country Music,” the omnnipresence on stage and TV, what I most vividly remember about Kitty Wells is my mind’s image of her sitting at her kitchen counter sipping a cup of coffee, smiling that beautiful smile, engaging a perfect stranger, a stranger she’d warmly invited to her home, in happy conversation about her life in country music.
I was not a fan of country music when I first moved to the South in the 1980s. Of course, at that point I’d only heard the overproduced junk that was most popular during that period. I knew little, if anything, about the hard-edged, truth-telling, straightforward country music of earlier eras. Lucky for me, every Saturday night, my local PBS station played old films from the Grand Ole Opry.
I watched, reluctantly at first, eventually as a die-hard, never-miss fan. My biggest “discovery,” without question, was Kitty Wells. Her music blew me away. It was everything contemporary country music wasn’t. It was raw, honest, stripped-down, real. And Wells’ on-screen presence was phenomenal. Her eyes burned through the TV right into my brain. If you don’t already know her music, I encourage you to find it and listen for yourself.
Sorry to sound cliche, but they just don’t make music like that anymore.
Wells blazed the trail that was followed by other country music giants, like Pasty Cline and Loretta Lynn.
When, years later, I had the chance to interview Wells and her husband, Johnnie Wright, half of the country duo Johnnie and Jack, I jumped at it. The couple invited me to their home, insisted we’d all be more comfortable there than at some office or hotel. And so we were. I was greeted as an honored guest and treated like an old friend. They were gracious and generous to a fault, not only engaging and bottomless sources of history and information but singular hosts and warm human beings who, incidentally, showed great affection for each other.
As I think back on the music of Kitty Wells, I’ll remember listening to “I Don’t Claim to Be An Angel,” for the first time, questioning everything I’d assumed about country singers. You can watch Kitty sing it here. Even without the music, the lyrics jump off the page with searingly painful regret, are current and fresh still:
I don’t claim to be an angel my life’s been full of sin
But when I met you darling that all came to an end
Never doubt my love dear whatever you may do
I don’t claim to be an angel but my love for you is true.
You’ll hear talk around town of things I used to do
Some will try to poison your mind that my love can’t be true
Many nights I lay awake dear hoping our love will last
Wondering if your love is strong enough to forget about my past.
I don’t claim to be an angel…
I never knew what real love was till you came along
You changed my outlook on life made me regret my wrongs
Why should my past keep haunting me all through the years
I paid for each mistake with millions of bitter tears.
I don’t claim to be an angel…
I sincerely mourn the passing of Miss Kitty Wells. May she rest in eternal peace.