Why Kitty Wells Challenged Hank Thompson’s ‘The Wild Side of Life’ With ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels’
Few narratives covering the classic country hits of the 1950s — or women challenging the role of a “Girl in a Country Song” — skip over the moment when Kitty Wells' “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” served as an answer song to Hank Thompson's “The Wild Side of Life.”
Thompson’s song, written by Arlie Carter and William Warren, spent 15 weeks atop the Billboard country charts in 1952. At the time, divorce rates had reached record numbers in the United States; that increased social taboo and other threats to the nation’s squeaky-clean image needed a scapegoat.
The first No. 1 hit of Thompson’s seven-decade career, "The Wild Side of Life" placed the blame on a bar-hopping woman. Thompson cut great songs in the coming decades, but his breakthrough single was, to 2020 ears, a bad take.
That's not meant to bury Thompson over a song that's easy to deem now as politically incorrect. Just as the narrator of "Okie From Muskogee" likely didn't represent Merle Haggard's personal takes on marijuana, Thompson plays the role of a spurned lover with an outlook different from the singer.
Cajun music legend J.D. Miller took the weak premise of Thompson’s hit and wrote a different perspective on whether “Honky-Tonk Angels” deserve the full blame for infidelity. With his song, Miller righted Thompson’s wrong by pointing out that it takes two. The new track borrowed from the familiar tune of “The Wild Side of Life,” used before in the Carter Family's “Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” and the country-gospel standard “The Great Speckled Bird” — a string of similarities later pointed out in David Allan Coe's “If That Ain’t Country.”
To challenge a weak point made by an immensely popular tune, Miller needed a singer on the verge of a hit. Enter Wells, a Decca recording artist in search of a song. Her now-iconic voice turned a 1952 recording meant to defend women from broad-brush accusations into the first chart-topper sung by a solo woman artist. Wells’ song got its own six-week run atop the charts -- and eventually outsold Thompson’s breakthrough single.
While “The Wild Side of Life” represents the ugly side of country song lyrics reflecting real-life situations, “It Wasn’t Got Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” became a rallying cry for women in country music as they transcended supporting roles as “girl singers” and became stars on par with their male peers. For example, Jessi Colter's 1981 collaborative album with Waylon Jennings, Leather and Lace, included a medley of Wells and Thompson’s songs.
Forty years after both hits took turns atop the charts, legends Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn combined forces in 1993 as the Honky-Tonk Angels, and even cut the song behind their name with Wells.
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