The Millennium Collection is often a hit and miss affair. Artists who have more than a dozen memorable songs or hit singles often have single disc compilations treat their careers unfairly. For others though who have one or two hits songs, coming up with enough quality material for these collections is a chore in and of itself. Legendary country singer Ellen Muriel Deason, aka Kitty Wells, rose to prominence with contemporaries like Patsy Cline. And her career, with eighty hit singles, seems to have enough songs to fit at least one disc if not more. Now in her eighties and no longer on the road, her legacy has seen Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, and Dolly Parton walk along the path she forged. This collection is a testament to her work and hits singles during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In 1952, Wells (whose name was given to her by husband Johnny Wright after a popular folk song by the Pickard Family) signed to Decca and released a reply to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life”. The result is the leadoff song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”. Hitting number one on the Billboard charts, the song has all the flavor of traditional pre-Stetson country possessed. With an opening that falls in line with Hank Williams, Wells carries the song throughout over a pedal steel guitar and subtle fiddles. At the time, the song was rarely on radio, as most stations thought it was a bit raunchy in its theme and message. Eventually though Wells won out. “Release Me” is a bit slower and has Wells hitting all the right notes without dominating the number. “I have found a new love dear / And I’ll always want him near”, she sings over a standard ‘50s Nashville arrangement.
The Best of Kitty Wells: the Millennium Collection (20th Century Masters)
(20th Century Masters)
One of the remarkable things about Wells is how she only gained stardom in her thirties. Another number one hit was her duet with Red Foley on “One by One”, which brings to mind future duets by the likes of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner or Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Foley’s vocals are clear and slightly deep, which complement the higher and obvious audible Southern accent Wells offers. There isn’t a lot in the song that jumps out at the listener. “Makin’ Believe”, though, is another gem among the dozen tracks on the record. Often covered by everyone from country crooners to groups like Social Distortion, the track’s simple beat and touches of guitar behind Wells gives it a certain freshness nearly five decades after the fact. And all under the three-minute mark! Wells also duets again with Red Foley for Roy Acuff’s “As Long As I Live”. The track is a tad more upbeat and up-tempo and has a certain country groove to it.
“Searching (For Someone Like You)” is the album’s first ballad and has more emphasis on Wells. With a backdrop that Cline and others like Brenda Lee or Connie Francis would perfect almost to a fault, Wells takes the song to another level. Unfortunately though the standard “I Can’t Stop Loving You” doesn’t really suit Wells well. Coming across as too prominent in the mix and almost kills the opening, she takes it down a tone, but the erratic nature of the performance dampens the song. It’s also the first song that is questionably included. “Mommy for a Day”, penned by Harlan Howard and Buck Owens, Wells returns to the format of her earlier hits, a mid-tempo effort that oozes honky-tonk. The fiddles here move from an almost classical intensity to laid-back country style.
“Amigo’s Guitar” has a Mexican flavor to it if the title didn’t give that impression. With harmonies in the background, it’s the first song here that Wells had a hand in writing. With its hop-a-long slow gallop resembling Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, the track reached number five on the Billboard Charts in 1959 and 1960. If there’s one problem, the song is a bit too condensed, cutting short what could have been an elongated guitar conclusion. “Heartbreak U.S.A.” has a slick, over-produced feeling to it with sweet harmonies and a cookie-cutter approach to the song, resembling at times Ricky Nelson’s ‘60s sound. Although it hit number one, it comes off as one of the weaker songs here.
One of the obvious problems with such collections is what could or should have been included. A particular favorite omitted has to be her gospel rendition of “Dust on the Bible”, which could easily have been heard here. Regardless though, “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God” is a rain cheque most can enjoyably suffer through. The album concludes with “You Don’t Know”, another overlooked gem. Wells was pretty much done as a star by this time, but continued well into the ‘70s and ‘80s. Receiving a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 1979, in a class with John Lennon and Bob Dylan, only solidified her legendary status. As does most of this collection.
// Notes from the Road
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