Kitty Wells died today. Some of you may not know the “Queen of County Music.” You should look her up. She was the first female to top the country music charts. Miss Kitty paved the way for Dolly, Loretta, Reba, and all the women of country music that followed in her footsteps. There would have never been a Patsy without Kitty. She has gone on now, joining her friends from the Hall of Fame, the innovators that made it possible for the young stars of today to live like kings and queens. These were the people that toured the dirt back roads of America, sleeping in cars, singing for enough money to make it to the next town or radio station, selling vinyl records out of the trunks of cars. When you’re talking about the roots of country music, you can’t have the conversation without mentioning the Queen, Miss Kitty Wells.
When I think of Kitty Wells, I hear the music of my childhood. My grandparents were quite good musicians and their house was always packed on Saturday nights with pickers and crooners – guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, if it had a string on it, I saw someone play it, and there were accordions, spoons, jaw harps, harmonicas, even saw blades made to sing like violins. Grandma banged out the tunes on an ancient upright piano. They shared old songs, passed down through generations. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was seeing and hearing American history in music. These were the instruments and songs that sang America into being. These were the songs of my ancestors.
Occasionally, they’d play a song I had heard on the radio. I sang along with renditions of tunes by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Johnny and June Cash. I learned to love Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Momma Maybelle and the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, but most of all I learned to love country music. I love the stories the songs tell, not only in the lyrics, but in instruments themselves. Musical instruments have carried the soul songs of the many cultures that have walked this earth. Guitars and fiddles have carried mine.
So when I read that Kitty Wells had passed away, I heard her voice clearly, singing her signature song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Another country music icon is gone, but her music will live on through the voices of the younger generations. I’m just hoping those country music stars remember to thank her and the others when they step up on those multimillion dollar tour buses. I also hope they remember folks like my grandparents and their parents, who kept the music alive before recordings, before radio, passing it down generation by generation. They were country, when county wasn’t cool.
Heaven might have a hell of a Rock and Roll band, but I bet the spirits will be pickin’ and grinnin’ at the old Ryman Auditorium tonight, welcoming home the Queen of County Music. Thank you, Kitty Wells, thank you for the memories.