Kitty Wells’ Legacy and the Future of Women on Country Radio
A legion of country music legends and industry professionals expressed their admiration for Country Music Hall of Famer Kitty Wells after her death this week at the age of 92. Rightly heralded as Queen of Country Music, she was a ground-breaking force who challenging authority even as she maintained a traditionally feminine image. No less an expert than Loretta Lynn acknowledged as much when she paid tribute to Wells and her trailblazing spirit: “Kitty Wells will always be the greatest female country singer of all times. She was my hero. If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself.”
As country music’s first female superstar, Wells reigned as the genre’s leading lady from 1952 to 1968, scoring 64 Top 40 hits during that time span. She also earned the first No. 1 single by a female artist with 1952′s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” an answer song to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” In her high, plaintive voice, she suggests that men should accept their share of blame for a woman’s transgressions. The song was so controversial at the time that Grand Ole Opry officials would not originally let her perform it. Throughout her career, Wells balanced these feisty rejoinders with more tempered songs of heartbreak and loss. Her music clearly struck a chord with fellow Hall of Famers Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, all of whom have credited Wells for setting the precedence which all women in country would eventually follow.
Progress for female hitmakers in country music has been a slow build since then. Sales and radio play on the distaff side seemed to reach a peak in the early 1990s. Reba McEntire and Wynonna rose to headliner status, and a healthy roster of artists—-Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood—went gold or platinum while winning a number of major awards. Their music spoke honestly about the lives of women with real smarts and integrity. The latter part of the decade proved even more fruitful, with international superstars Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks becoming some of the most celebrated acts in all of popular music.
But the steady gains that Wells made as a female pioneer in a male-dominated format are in danger of being swept aside. Both Twain and Hill have taken long absences from touring and recording, and the Dixie Chicks continue to lay low since their very public divorce from the format. The dearth of women in the chart’s upper reaches these days has rendered the annual female vocalist categories uncompetitive. Since the 2006 CMA Awards, the trio of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift have accounted for all female vocalist honors given by the Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association, and the Grammys. An even more troubling statistic: For two weeks in the summer of 2011, no songs by solo woman ranked among the Top 30 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
Meanwhile, the men have been ridiculed as of late for their soundalike ditties, nearly all of them aimed at redneck kids and their southern lifestyles. They trade heavily in the same stock images and hard-rock arrangements. Worse, the small-town sweethearts they sing about reflect none of the gritty realism that the women of country have been known for. These seemingly interchangeable performers have kept hillbilly stereotyping alive and well into the 21st century.
Though market research posits that female listeners prefer being sung to by men, it’s hard not to get a whiff of sexism from Music Row today. More curious is how these women are being defined by such a limited character, generally a sundress-wearing, truck-driving, preacher’s daughter with a Bible in one hand and a beer in the other.
As country radio suffers from tightly restricted playlists, the traditional roots of the genre have gotten short shrift. That history includes a slew of landmark recordings by female artists, with songs that provide flesh-and-blood portrayals of women just like Kitty Wells. Her contributions to country music will forever remain etched in the genre’s legacy, so it’s disheartening to think that the challenges for a “girl singer” are now more daunting than ever.
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