How Kitty Wells’ ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ Became Country’s Greatest Diss Track

Jeannie Seely was a 12-year-old girl in rural Pennsylvania when she first heard Kitty Wells’ song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” It was 1952, and Wells’ unlikely hit was climbing the charts on its way to making country music history. That August — 70 years ago this month — it became the first single by a solo female artist to reach No. 1 on the country charts, and a bellwether for women in the industry.

“I was absolutely thrilled, of course, to hear another girl was a big thing, because there weren’t that many at that time,” Seely, now 82, says over the phone from Nashville. Seely rose to prominence with her own hit, 1966’s “Don’t Touch Me,” launching a Grammy-winning career that includes more than 50 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry.

“I didn’t have a lot of mentors back then,” she says. “So when [Wells] came along, and that record hit, I was like, ‘Wow, this opens a whole new world to me.’”

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” reached the top spot on Aug. 23, 1952, and stayed there for six weeks. It likewise rose to No. 1 on the country jukebox chart, and also cracked the pop Top 40, going on to sell 800,000 copies in its first year and become one of the first million-selling singles by a solo female country artist. But just as important as those achievements was the statement the song made.

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” written by J.D. Miller, was an answer song — the Fifties equivalent of a modern-day diss track — to that year’s song of the summer, Hank Thompson’s misogynistic tear-jerker “The Wild Side of Life.” Wells offers a firm rebuke to Thompson’s tale of a cuckolded husband whose wife left him for “the places where the wine and liquor flow.” “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels,” he laments, “I might have known you’d never make a wife.”

Borrowing the same melody, Wells sings, “It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women,” and argues that “most every heart that’s ever broken/was because there always was a man to blame.” Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” spent 15 weeks at No. 1 until Wells’ response knocked it out of the top spot, and eventually outsold it — in spite of the NBC radio network, which broadcast the weekly Grand Ole Opry radio program, banning it from airplay. The Opry itself initially refused to allow Wells to perform it, but relented due to audience demand.

“That made a big impact on me,” Seely says, “that we were allowed to speak up and be heard.”

The song went on to have a storied history, becoming Wells’ signature tune and being covered by everyone from Lynn Anderson to Marianne Faithfull to Eighties L.A. punks the Knitters. It was the namesake for Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette’s 1993 supergroup album Honky Tonk Angels (which featured Wells on a cover of the song), and the basis for k.d. lang’s “Honky Tonk Medley,” including Wells, Lynn, and Brenda Lee, from lang’s acclaimed debut Shadowland.

Lynn, arguably the greatest country trailblazer of them all, still sees Wells as the true “Queen of Country Music,” a moniker Wells earned from her unprecedented chart success. “One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was there is already a Kitty Wells, there won’t ever be another,” Lynn, 90, tells Rolling Stone in a statement via her manager. “When I started learning how to sing, I tried to sound just like Kitty. She was my hero.”

Yet for her part, Wells didn’t think much of “Honky Tonk Angels” when she was asked to record it for Decca Records in the spring of 1952. “I wasn’t expecting to make a hit,” she once admitted. “I just thought it was another song.” She was more interested in the flat $125 union rate she would receive for the session, in which she cut three other tracks with producer Owen Bradley, later to be known as the architect of the slicked-up, string-heavy “countrypolitan” sound.

Wells had good reason to feel ambivalent. Born Ellen Deason in Nashville in 1919, she sang with her siblings in the Deason Sisters as a teenager before marrying cabinetmaker Johnnie Wright in 1937 and becoming a backup singer in his various bands, including the duo Jack & Johnnie with Jack Anglin. The couple were founding members of the influential Louisiana Hayride program in Shreveport, Louisiana, but a handful of solo sides she cut with RCA Victor at the turn of the Fifties went nowhere. By 1952, Wells, now a mother of three, was looking to retire and become a full-time parent.

Laura Cantrell, a lifelong fan of Wells who grew up in Nashville and can remember seeing the singer’s tour bus parked in the neighborhood when she was a child, says that Wells was “already [considered] middle-aged by the standards of the day,” even though she was only 32. Then again, women were barely allowed to be more than token side acts to begin with. “Every sort of business orthodoxy of the time said that she was not a winning bet,” says Cantrell, “to the degree that Roy Acuff, Mr. Grand Ole Opry himself, advised them, ‘Do not put Kitty’s name on the top of the bill. Women cannot sell tickets.’”

The success of “Honky Tonk Angels” should’ve smashed those prejudices — and to a degree, it did. Wells went on to chart 81 songs, 35 of which reached the country Top 10, and earned her second solo No. 1 in 1961 with “Heartbreak U.S.A.” She was such a ubiquitous presence that Willie Nelson name-checked her in his 1971 classic “Me and Paul.” (“It’s a little, like, dig at the Nashville establishment,” Cantrell observes.) Despite her soft-spoken demeanor and traditional sensibilities, Wells never shied away from standing up for women in her songs, such as “A Wedding Ring Ago,” “Paying for That Back Street Affair,” or “I Don’t Claim to Be an Angel,” which continued to tackle then-risqué themes of infidelity and divorce.

Her sustained notoriety was a watershed for other solo female artists, like Jean Shepard, Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn — all of whom, save for Shepard, joined Wells at Decca. Seely, too, was added to the roster in the late Sixties. Women were a key ingredient of Bradley’s hit-making formula, yet the fact remained that these artists typically needed men like Bradley to give them their opportunities, as it was (white) men who ran the labels, produced the records, and wrote most the hits. In fact, it wasn’t until 1967, 15 years after “Honky Tonk Angels,” that Lynn became the first female singer to reach No. 1 with a song she wrote herself, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).”

Those same circumstances linger in the background of “Honky Tonk Angels,” no matter the influence it had. “I’m not totally sure that [J.D. Miller] grasped what he was doing,” says Seely, who admits the song may have been a mere bit of opportunism on its author’s part. “Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. Maybe he did realize the woman’s side. Or did he just realize this was a commercial way to do it, and a money-making idea?” Whatever the truth, Cantrell points out that Wells’ “plainspoken delivery” is what sells it. “She’s not a singer with an ornamental approach, but there’s just this really intense, kind of emotional content in the singing itself,” Cantrell says.

Sunny Sweeney, another ardent follower of Wells’, has performed “Honky Tonk Angels” on several occasions at the semiannual “Opry Country Classics” showcase in Nashville. “Even the fact that we have to dissect the fact in today’s age that a song is sung by a female artist or is sung by a male artist is perpetuating the problem,” Sweeney writes via email.

Indeed, while “Honky Tonk Angels” could be mistaken for a relic of the past — “They seem so tame in 2020s parlance, but in the 1950s these were kind of racy songs,” says Cantrell — what’s shocking is just how relevant it feels today. “In some ways, we’ve gone backwards,” says Marissa R. Moss, author of the new book Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be and a Rolling Stone contributor. She points to how aggressively women are excluded from prominent country radio airplay or festival billing. In the past five years, for instance, only five female singers have had a share of a No. 1 country hit, three of whom did so as solo artists without sharing billing with male counterparts. “The chart representation for women is dismal,” Moss says.

That same period of time has seen important “coalition building,” as Moss puts it, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and a push toward greater inclusion for artists of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other historically marginalized groups. Yet Wells herself might be an anachronism in the present landscape. “The fact that a song like ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ would probably be radical on country radio now is really fucking depressing,” Moss says. “Those lyrics would be radical. [And] that should be disturbing to everyone.”

The message of “Honky Tonk Angels” remains all too pertinent, in this regard: At its core, the song is a condemnation of the men who blame others — be it women, country music listeners, or God himself — rather than take responsibility for their own actions. Witness the fallout of “Tomatogate,” in which a country-radio consultant likened women to a mere garnish in the proverbial country music salad, as though programmers hadn’t relegated them to such a station in the first place. For all the Lorettas, Dollys, and Shanias who pushed the genre forward, both creatively and commercially, those calling the shots haven’t evolved their thinking much beyond the days of Roy Acuff.

“The fact that women still have to test the thesis [about being able to sell records or tickets] — and not just women, but women of color and artists of color — it shows how strong those long-term biases are,” says Cantrell.

None of that, however, diminishes Wells’ contributions. “I always try to pinpoint who influenced my influences, musically speaking,” says Sweeney. “All roads seem to drive right back to Kitty Wells.” During her long career, which stretched all the way until her retirement from live performances in 2000, Wells remained a mentor to those who followed in her footsteps. As Lynn recalls: “The first time I met Kitty, someone said, ‘Kitty, don’t you think Loretta sounds a little like you?’ Kitty looked over at me, smiled, and said, ‘She’ll do alright.’ It meant the world to me.”

Cantrell recorded a tribute album to Wells, Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music, in 2011, the year before Wells died at 92. “There are so many more [of her] songs than just ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,’ and I wanted to draw attention to her body of work,” says Cantrell. “I would love it if more people of this generation would be interested to explore her recorded work.”

Seely, too, continues to be an ardent champion of her hero’s music, kicking off her Opry appearances to this day with “Honky Tonk Angels.” Last year, when Carly Pearce was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, Seely arranged for her and Pearce to sing Wells’ 1955 hit “Making Believe” with fellow member Trisha Yearwood. “To me, it was the epitome of the ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ moment, from a female standpoint,” says Seely. “It was three generations of Opry female singers onstage, honoring the generation before us.”

More than perhaps any of her peers, Seely can appreciate the progress that’s been made in the past seven decades — and all that remains ahead. “Women are still fighting a lot of battles,” she says. “They’re not all won yet.”

Music

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