Kitty Wells – The angel went down to Georgia
The record was that all right — and then some. Countering Thompson’s contention, in “The Wild Side Of Life,” that some women were loose by nature, Wells’ rejoinder, charging that slick-talking men had been many a sister’s ruin, captured the malaise many women in postwar America were feeling.
When thousands of GIs marched off to World War II a decade earlier, women picked up the slack (and wore the slacks), entering the workforce and gaining a measure of social, financial and, in quite a few cases, sexual independence. But then the men came home and tried to turn back the clock, expecting women to resume their roles as homebodies. Those who didn’t became scapegoats, their morals called into question by their newfound freedom.
“It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women,” Wells mourns in her doleful, mountain-tinged alto to kick off the record’s second verse. Almost offhandedly lowering the boom as the chorus rolls around, she adds, “Many men think they’re still single/That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.” Had the record been cut by one of Wells’ brassier peers — by a bona fide honky-tonk angel such as Rose Maddox or Charline Arthur, say — it doubtless would have smacked of an endorsement of licentiousness and vanished without a trace, if it got released at all. But nothing about Wells, then a 32-year-old, gingham-clad housewife and mother, was brazen, or even remotely threatening.
The same goes for her stolid performance. Wells was merely empathizing with “fallen” women, expressing a sentiment akin to the Victorian notion of “she’s more to be pitied than censured.” She wasn’t condoning the wild life, and that’s the main reason the record topped the country charts. Within weeks she’d become the first solo female singing star on the postwar Opry, and was well on her way to charting an unprecedented (for a woman) 27 consecutive Top 20 country singles.
Song publisher Fred Rose dubbed Wells the “Queen of Country Music” soon enough, a title she held onto by reigning as the top female vocalist in the country trade magazines well into the 1960s. As that tumultuous decade began, not only had Wells opened the doors of Nashville’s recording studios to dozens of her singing sisters, but she’d also established herself as a prototype for subsequent generations of country women, from Hazel Dickens and Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton and Iris DeMent. The only thing surprising about her election, in 1976, to the Country Music Hall of Fame was that she wasn’t the first female inductee, a laurel that went to the late Patsy Cline.
Wells is proud of every one of these achievements, but not especially of Forever Young — at least not when it first came out 27 years ago. It wouldn’t quite do to liken the record to This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album: He Doesn’t Like It, the 1971 LP that paired the blues colossus with members of the mostly forgotten pop-soul band Rotary Connection. Nevertheless, back in the day, Wells and her husband had sufficient misgivings about the Capricorn project to have it pulled from the market shortly after its release — and to sue the label, which was counting on the album to launch its new country division, for control of the masters.
“We were afraid it was too modern-sounding,” Wells admits. “We didn’t think people would accept a record like that, especially when they were used to the other.”
The “other” of which Wells speaks is the 70-some-odd hits she had with producer Owen Bradley. Apart from a dalliance with the Nashville Sound during the ’60s, most were built around Wells’ keening, unadorned vocals and lean, shuffling arrangements spotlighting the fiddle and steel guitar.
“We hesitated for quite awhile about doing the session,” adds Wright, who has functioned as his wife’s manager and A&R man throughout her career. “Then they came out with ‘Forever Young’, one of the worst singles. Well, maybe not the worst, but I didn’t think it was Kitty’s style. We left for Hawaii to visit our nephew the morning after we finished the record and I took a dub to a disc jockey I knew out there. He played it and said, ‘This doesn’t sound a bit like Kitty Wells!’
“What was more disappointing than anything,” Wright says, “was the cover of the album.”
“They wanted me to wear a dress from some Hollywood movie,” Wells explains, referring the Elizabethan-style gown she wore in the album’s original cover photo, presumably to make her look suitably regal. “It had these different colored stripes and a collar that came up around my neck. It just wasn’t me. Then they fixed my hair and pulled it all to one side, which wasn’t the way I wore it. It wasn’t me at all.”
No less of an adjustment for Wells was having to learn the songs — most of them picked by co-producer Johnny Sandlin — right there at the session. And having to work with a cadre of musicians whose approach to recording could hardly have been more different from that of maestro Bradley and his A-Teamers.
“It was kind of strange working with that band there,” Wells confesses, adding that she’d heard of the Allmans, had even heard their records, but hadn’t met any of them till then. “I was used to working with all the musicians here in Nashville. We’d meet in the studio, rehearse a song and put it on record. But when we went down [to Macon], they’d get on one song, and play it and play it. They’d fiddle half the night with the same song.”
As these comments suggest, the Capricorn crew apparently did a good bit of overdubbing, “patching” parts they liked from one take into another. “It wasn’t like we used to do when all the musicians were there in the same room and we’d all record together,” Wells says. “I think we got better feeling doing it the old way.” These by no means insignificant differences aside, Wells and her Southern Rock counterparts adjusted to each other fairly quickly — quite literally overnight.