By: Elissa Blattman, NWHM Intern
In March 1952, singer Hank Thompson released one of country music’s most popular songs. “The Wild Side of Life” spent over three months atop the Billboard country chart that spring and summer. The song is about a man in love, scorned by a woman more attracted to “the glamor of the gay night life” and “the places where the wine and liquor flows” than being the type of wife he wanted. Thompson sings in the chorus: “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels / I might have known you’d never make a wife / You gave up the only one that ever loved you / And went back to the wild side of life”
The woman in “The Wild Side of Life” is blamed for the relationship gone wrong, while the man is portrayed as an innocent, lonely victim. Some women were not happy with Thompson’s song, as it suggests women who favor a more public than domestic lifestyle lack a sense of morality. The song’s narrative, combined with its success, was the perfect setup for someone to answer back.
And someone did.
When Kitty Wells was approached in June of 1952 to sing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” she was about to give up her career singing with her husband’s band to be a stay at home wife and mother. The recording session paid $125 and she agreed to lay down the vocals to make the money. The song quickly became a huge hit, selling over 800,000 copies, making Kitty Wells the first solo female act to hit number one on Billboard’s country chart as well as the first female country singer to cross over to Billboard’s pop chart, and earning her the title “Queen of Country Music.” Not everyone was a fan of it, though. NBC radio deemed the song too controversial and banned it from their airwaves. The Grand Ole Opry refused to let Wells perform it on their stage, until they relented due to its growing popularity.
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” turns the table on the male narrator of “The Wild Side of Life.” Wells sings: “It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels / As you said in the words of your song / Too many times married men think they’re still single / That has caused many a good girl to go wrong”
Wells’ song took an early feminist stance by going on the offensive against 1950s double standards that allowed men to act as though “they’re still single” while expecting their wives to be waiting for them at home when they chose to return. The song struck a chord especially with the female listening public who did not often hear their side of the story represented in country music. The song also made room for women in the male-dominated, conservative country music industry. Before wells hit it big with this single, country women were mostly confined to the role of “girl singer” performing with an otherwise all male band. Country women were also rarely given record deals, as their potential to sell singles and albums and sellout theaters was not recognized by the men in charge of country labels. Though she recorded it expecting to net only the $125 recording fee, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” skyrocketed Kitty Wells to fame and launched her on a successful solo music career that lasted fifty years. With one song, Wells broke down the gender barrier in country music and paved the way for all future female country stars to make it on their own.