Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
After World War II, country music reigned supreme.
Well, at least the fantasy of it did (or rather, the fantasy of “hillbilly” music). America emerged from World War II as a profoundly changed society. Men had gone to war and seen the world; meanwhile, women left their homes to work in wartime factories, experiencing social and economic independence for the first time in their lives. Ironically, America was following in “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers’ footsteps: rootless, restless, and nonrestrictive. “Family” dwindled in importance as the divorce rate soared and activities like drinking, dancing and sex no longer seemed sinful.
Still, the country attempted to settle back into “normalcy” in the 1950s, but it didn’t come without its costs. Men were still scarred from battle, and wartime propaganda fueled women’s aspirations; society couldn’t just force them to go back to being stay-at-home wives in newly created, isolated suburbs.
And how did country music respond? With the times, of course, capturing those frustrations and insecurities. Before the war, themes of mothers, religion and home were the most common, though certain artists did manage to sneak in the occasional recount of a national tragedy here and there (not to mention how the aforementioned Rodgers stood out during this time). After the war, however, “honky-tonk” emerged out of dirty taverns, where bands sang about alcohol, divorce, and – gasp! – cheatin’.
That also comes with the caveat that it was men who ruled that era – Ernest Tubb, Al Dexter, Floyd Tillman and Ted Daffan, to be exact, with Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams soon to follow. Still, you never know where that restlessness will hit hardest in times of need. Songwriter J.D. Miller was driving along State Route 90 near Rayne, Louisiana when he heard Hank Thompson’s smash hit, “The Wild Side Of Life,” on the radio, a song condemning a modern woman with a free, wandering spirit for not wanting to settle into a “normal” life. Miller immediately pulled off the side of the road, grabbed a notepad and pencil and wrote a woman’s response. The song would literally be an answer to one of the lines Thompson presented, “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels,” to which that answer said, “God didn’t.”
Miller submitted the lyrics to Decca Records, but the label had no female artists on its roster then. Chatter went around about Kitty Wells, who label associates knew then as the woman married to Johnny Wright (half of the country duo “Johnnie & Jack”), and that she dabbled in music every now and then. Of course, “dabbling in music every now and then” actually meant recording several sides for RCA Victor that failed to chart, disheartening Wells greatly and making her uninterested in trying again.
Wells, too, was an unlikely candidate to sing a song about a woman condemned to a world of taverns, liquor and sin from the actions of an unfaithful man. As a devout mother, happily married woman, and, well … God-fearing woman, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” stood opposite of the image she was trying to project. Certain Decca industry personnel were skeptical too, as no female country artist had ever charted a major country music single, save for Patsy Montana’s pop crossover hit of “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” in 1935. But Wells recorded the song at the insistence of her husband, and Decca pressed on, knowing full well of the risks it might carry.
Privately, Wells was shy and soft-spoken, but she acted out modern women’s dreams and desires while living her own life by her older ideals. And through that one song, she became the voice of a generation and a honky-tonk heroine, becoming the first woman in country music to collect a No. 1 hit. Ironically, the melody of both her and Thompson’s hit is as old as country music itself. It was initially popularized by the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes” in 1929, which later provided the tune for Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird” in 1936 (and that’s not to mention how the roots likely extend even farther back to British-American folk tradition).
This would also not be the first time Wells answered to male artists’ hits. When Webb Pierce had “Back Street Affair,” she answered with “Paying For That Back Street Affair”; when Hank Williams sang “Cold, Cold Heart,” she answered with “My Cold, Cold Heart Is Melted Now”; and, on a more lighthearted note, she answered Bobby Helms’ “Fraulein” with “I’ll Always Be Your Fraulein.” That, too, is a tradition that stretches back to some of country music’s earliest recordings. Answer songs abounded in part because of country music’s knack for telling a story, with many artists feeling that certain songs needed sequels. Of course, Wells’ material was far more diverse than simple answers to other songs. She often adopted the view of the victimized woman (“Honky-Tonk Waltz,” “After Dark,” “I Don’t Claim To Be An Angel”), the woman staring into the face of temptation (“There’s Poison In Your Heart”), the woman admitting her own weaknesses (“One By One”) and the woman criticizing the honky-tonk lifestyle (“The Life They Live In Songs”).
And all of that is to say she paved the way for every country female performer who succeeded her and gave a much-needed voice and perspective to the genre, rightfully earning her place as “the Queen of Country Music.”
Next time on Unbroken Circle, we’ll jump ahead in time to discuss Randy Travis’ “On the Other Hand,” a song that had to be released twice before it paved the way forward for country music.