Kitty Wells – The angel went down to Georgia
You can hear everyone’s comfort level rise from one day to the next, the pickers sounding more in the pocket, Wells singing with greater command. The contrast is most striking on the two numbers they cut in a country-soul vein. Their cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, recorded the first day, is tentative at best, while their remake of Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s waltz-time “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, done the second day, fairly smolders. Other highlights from the second session include “Don’t Stop The Honeymoon In My Heart” and “Till I Can Make It On My Own”, each a sawdust-and-steel tour de force, with Dickey Betts’ Dobro blubbering all over the latter.
The first day, however, was hardly a washout. Wells’ remake of Johnnie & Jack’s “What About You”, done in “straight” as opposed to the three-quarter time of the original, is as good as anything on the record, John Hughey’s sobbing steel giving the lie to Kitty’s claims of not having to make believe anymore. And though the elegiac title cut, like the Redding cover, is a bit creaky in spots, it’s just the sort of benediction you’d expect to hear from a woman of faith who, with her husband, has been active with the same church for more than 50 years.
The lack of ProTools in 1974 notwithstanding, the album is also somewhat in keeping with the kinds of Southern Rock-inflected country albums that the likes of Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, and Deana Carter have recorded in the past decade. And yet it’s something few people would have heard had Wells’ grandson, John Sturdivant Jr., not convinced his “Memaw” and granddad to let him remix the long-out-of-print album from the original two-track masters.
Even so, the couple still had reservations about letting John Jr. reissue Forever Young on his Junction Records label — until they heard his remix. “They hadn’t listened to the record in ages,” Sturdivant says, adding that what he believes his grandparents objected to most on the original album were its Southern Rock overtones. “What I did was try to polish it up and EQ it a little to where it was, you know, was more country sounding,” he explains. “But I didn’t want to take anything away from the magic of those sessions.”
“It’s more full now,” Wright says, “and you’ve got more echo on it, more so than they had back then. The way John Jr. rearranged it just made it sound more country. It sounds more like Kitty.”
“Kitty,” or “Miss Kitty” to virtually everyone but her husband, is, remarkably enough, the only native Nashvillian ever to become a country superstar, not counting second-generation hitmakers such as Lorrie Morgan and Deana Carter. Born Muriel Ellen Deason on August 30, 1919 (her stage name comes from an antediluvian ballad popularized by the Pickard Family), Wells grew up on Wharf Avenue in South Nashville. Her father, a brakeman with the Tennessee Central Railroad, played guitar and sang folk songs. Her mother, a homemaker, used to gather Kitty and her sisters around the kitchen table to sing gospel songs (her brothers were often away, helping out on their granddad’s farm).
The Deasons also sang in church, but the music that made the biggest impression on young Muriel was the racket that hoedown bands such as Dr. Humphrey Bate’s Possum Hunters and George Wilkerson’s Fruit Jar Drinkers were making on the WSM Barn Dance. The family couldn’t afford a radio until the 1930s, but every now and then their agent from the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, the show’s sponsor, would supply them with tickets to a performance. The Barn Dance, of course, soon became known as the Grand Ole Opry; by the mid-’30s, when the breakdown bands were being supplanted by a new generation of solo stars, Wells counted the likes of Roy Acuff, Pee Wee King, and a cowgirl belter named Texas Ruby among her favorites.
By that time, at the height of the Depression, Wells had dropped out of high school to fold and iron shirts for the Washington Manufacturing Company. She’d also embarked on a singing career of her own. Kitty and her cousin Bessie Choate, both in their teens, were working as a duo called the Deason Sisters. They made their radio debut on WSIX in 1936, singing the Carter Family’s “Jealous Hearted Me”, but the station’s brass, feeling the song was too suggestive, pulled the plug on the young women midway through their performance.
“They cut us off the air,” Wells recalls. “But the song was real popular; and we got so many requests for it that they finally let us sing it.” The station soon gave the duo their own show, to which they often brought along Kitty’s sisters Jewel and Mae to round out the act. Even then, family and music were linked inextricably for Wells, just as they’ve been throughout her career.
Just as important to her early musical development was meeting Johnnie Wright, a young farmer and aspiring musician from nearby Mount Juliet. Wright’s sister had just married and moved next door to the Deasons in Nashville. “I had brought my mother and father to visit my sister,” he remembers. “We were having lunch and my sister said, ‘You know, Johnnie, there’s a girl next door that sings some of the prettiest gospel songs you’ve ever heard. She plays guitar too.”
It wasn’t long after Johnnie and Kitty met that they started dating, and singing together. That was 1935; two years later they were married. Johnnie worked at a cabinet company and Kitty was still folding shirts at Washington Manufacturing. The couple rented their first house, just a few blocks north of downtown Nashville, for five bucks a month.
Meanwhile, Kitty and her cousin, now joined by Johnnie and his sister Louise, were still singing on WSIX. Now billing themselves as Johnnie Wright & the Harmony Girls, the group also would play little theaters and schoolhouses in towns outlying Nashville on weekends. But when Kitty and Johnnie had their first child, Ruby, in 1939, Kitty stayed home with the baby, and Johnnie formed a Delmore Brothers-style duo with his sister’s husband, Jack Anglin.
A dead ringer for the Delmores, in fact. “Jack could play a guitar real good, and I would just follow with the chord,” Wright says. “There was no television back then. [Very few people] had ever seen the Delmore Brothers, but they loved ’em, so this guy who worked with me at [the] cabinet company would take us around to restaurants and places, asking people if they’d ever heard of the Delmore Brothers. When they’d say, ‘Yeah,’ he’d say, ‘Hold on, I’ve got ’em out in the car. So we’d grab our guitars, go in, and sing two or three Delmore Brothers songs. People loved our singing.”
So much so that the two men took over the family’s morning slot on WSIX; by 1940, they’d packed it in at their day jobs and packed their wives and kids off to Greensboro, North Carolina, to launch a radio show on WBIG. From there they moved, by turns, to Charleston, Knoxville (where they hired a young fiddle player named Chester Burton Atkins; Johnnie is often credited with encouraging Atkins to switch to guitar), Raleigh and, then, back home to Nashville.