She broke down a female barrier in country music with her 1952 hit recording, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” which also made her the first female country singer to top the U.S. country charts, and turned her into the first female country star.
Wells ranks as the sixth most successful female vocalist in the history of Billboard’s country charts, according to historian Joel Whitburn’s book The Top 40 Country Hits, behind Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, Tammy Wynette, and Tanya Tucker.
In 1976, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 1991, she became the third country music artist, after Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, and the eighth woman to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born Ellen Muriel Deason in 1919, one of six siblings, to Charles Cary Deason and his wife, Myrtle, in Nashville, Tennessee.
(She is one of the few well known country performers to have been born in Nashville.) She began singing as a child, learning guitar from her father, who was a brakeman on the Tennessee Central Railroad.
Her father, Charles, and his brother were musicians and her mother, Myrtle, was a gospel singer.
She married Wright in 1937 and joined by her husband and his sister, Louise, to perform as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls.
Two years later, Wright began performing with Jack Anglin as the duo Johnnie and Jack.
Wright and Wells performed as a duo; it was at this time she adopted “Kitty Wells” as her stage name.
Johnnie Wright chose the name from a folk song called “Sweet Kitty Wells”.
When Anglin returned from the Army, he and Wright formed the Johnnie & Jack duo.
Wells would tour with the pair, occasionally performing backup vocals.
Before Wells’ rise to stardom with “Honky Tonk Angels”, Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys toured with Wright and Wells for a time.
Acuff advised Wright not to make his wife his show’s headliner because he thought women could not sell country music records.
By the 1970s, Wells rarely made the country music charts, but she remained a fixture on the concert circuit for decades.
She and her husband started their own label, Ruboca Records, in 1979.
They also opened up the Family Country Junction Museum in Madison, Tennessee, in the early 1980s.
While the museum has since closed, their recording studio remains open and is run by one of their grandchildren.
Wells may have retired from performing in 2000, but she is remembered today for helping to create opportunities for other female performers in country music.
The success of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (1952) showed that there was a market for country music from songs from a woman’s point-of-view, and paved the way for future generations of female country singers.
She finally gave up touring in 2007 and continued to live a quiet life, so much differently than the subjects of her songs.