Not being a country music fan, about all I know about Kitty Wells before listening to her obit on NPR is that she was a singer in that genre. What piqued my interest was that she was one of the first female singers to hit big. Her first hit, 1952's "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", was an answer song to country music superstar Hank Thompson's version of "Wild Side of Life". Apparently one of the song's writers had been dumped, and wrote "Wild Side" to vent about what a tramp his ex was. "Angels" rebutted, basically saying if she was a tramp, it was probably due to some no-good man treating her bad. (Pardon my grammar - I am trying to be authentic with the topic here.)
First things first: are you telling me NO women were popular singers until the 1950s???? That just seems strange to me. But if it says so on Wiki, it must be true. Apparently record labels were hesitant to record solo women, thinking they would only sell if they were in duets or backup singers. Kitty Wells changed all that. Although it was initially banned by NBC radio, the Grand Ole Opry and others for its adult theme, people couldn't get enough of "Angels". With it, Wells became the first woman to have a number one song on Billboard magazine's country chart.
Note Thompson's song with the similar theme was not banned.
Secondly: to be honest I think I was more intrigued by the concept of the "answer" song. Apparently it was a popular trend in country music of that era. It has popped up in other genres from time to time. I wonder if there are more answer songs out there than we realize?
I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
answer: Won't Get Fooled Again - The Who
I Want To Hold Your Hand - The Beatles
answer: Born To Run - Bruce Springsteen
Ain't Too Proud To Beg - Temptations
answer: Let's Get It On - Marvin Gaye
Let's Stay Together - Al Green
answer: Beat It - Michael Jackson
Welcome To The Jungle - Guns n Roses
answer: I Will Survive - Gloria Gaynor
Like A Virgin - Madonna
answer: Losing My Religion - REM
How Will I Know - Whitney Houston
answer: You Oughtta Know - Alanis Morissette
Yes, I am just having a little fun with titles. The true answer songs are 100% devoted to answering the original, beginning to bridge to chorus to end. Some answer songs are lame, simply turning a few of the original song's lyrics around to reflect an opposite viewpoint. Others are fully formed and could stand on their own. My favorite example of this is Lynyrd Skynyrd's angry, indignant "Sweet Home Alabama" in answer to Neil Young's "Southern Man". Extra points awarded when the performer is also the songwriter. Somehow this gives more authenticity to the 'answer'. It's not unusual for singers to perform songs written by others. In fact, it is the norm. But after all the hype about Ms. Wells' groundbreaking offering with "Angels", it was a letdown to learn she had not written the lyrics and was just called in to sing that day as part of her recording contract. Who even knows if she actually identified with the lyrics, and was striking a musical blow for women's rights? Unfortunately it is more likely she just came in to the studio, sang the song, collected her paycheck, and went home.
Whatever the circumstances, thanks, Ms. Wells et. al., for giving female performers a jump-start in 1952 and also to the writer of 'Wild Side', without which we would have had no need for an 'answer' song. Who knows how long it would have taken otherwise?
The original version of this post first appeared in July 2012.