Laura Cantrell, a magnificent singer in her own right but also a lifelong Kitty Wells fan, is the ideal woman to record a Kitty Wells tribute album. Upon hearing that Laura had recorded such an album, I checked to see if anybody else had paid such a tribute. I found one that Norma Jean recorded in 1966, but it has never (at least so far) been released on CD. So this tribute to the queen of country music, who is still with us but long since retired, is long overdue.
If you look closely at the cover picture, you'll see in the background a box of vinyl records, with two of them propped up at the front and side, one by Kitty Wells and one by Jean Shepard. In the foreground sits Laura, perhaps wondering if whoever is looking at the picture is a Kitty Wells fan. Inside the digipack, Laura provides some comments about the album explaining how the idea for the album came about. Laura also expresses annoyance that most people these days remember Kitty for just one song. Obviously, part of the purpose of this album is to remind people that Kitty wasn't just a one-hit wonder.
Laura's album opens with the title track, an original song that Laura co-wrote as her own tribute to Kitty. An excellent opener, it is followed by nine songs that Kitty recorded, most of which were big hits but also including three songs that a lot of Kitty's fans might not have heard (I don't claim to be an angel, Searching for a soldier's grave, I gave my wedding dress away - all of them can be found on the Bear Family boxed set The Queen of country music - 1949-1958
). The inclusion of those songs at the expense of Heartbreak USA (a number one country hit), Release me (now thought of as Engelbert Humperdinck's song, but Kitty's hit dates from 1954 and she wasn't the original artist either) and some of Kitty's other classics should tell you that Laura is a diehard fan of Kitty's music.
Inevitably, Laura included the one song that Kitty is known for - It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels. Kitty was on the point of quitting the music business when she was asked to record this song, and although she agreed to do it, she apparently didn't have high expectations of it. And why should she have done? It was only an answer song to Wild side of life (Hank Thompson), which itself used the same tune as I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes (Carter Family) and Great speckled bird (Roy Acuff). However, the lyrics clearly struck a chord with the public (well, the women at least) and the record became a massive hit in the American country charts, crossing over to the pop charts where it made the top thirty.
Kitty never had a hit that big again although she had two other number one country hits, one of them a duet (One by one, which Laura reprises here with Chuck Mead performing the male vocals). It's just as well that Kitty didn't quit the business because she had unexpectedly become the trailblazer for women in country music. There were other great female singers around at the time including Jean Shepard, Rose Maddox and Rosalie Allen, but while each of them made their mark (and I love their music), none of them came close to matching the success of Kitty Wells.
Another major hit for Kitty (though not a number one, at least on Billboard's charts) was Makin' believe. Webb Pierce spent five months at the top of the Billboard country charts with his cover of In the jailhouse now (a Jimmy Rodgers song), and for most of that time Makin' believe would have been number two. Still, the song has itself become a classic country song recorded by many artists. My first copy of the song came on Emmylou Harris' album Luxury liner, but I've acquired a few others since. Laura's version here is well up to the standard of the others that I've heard..
This is one fantastic album that will hopefully remind the world of Kitty Wells' importance. The female country singers who flourished in the sixties might not have had the opportunities if Kitty Wells had not blazed the trail. Kitty's music is poorly represented on CD, limited mainly to a series of hits compilations that mostly repeat the same tracks. There is that Bear Family set and one or two other releases but not much. Maybe Jasmine, Proper, JSP or one of the other old-time labels will put together a decent compilation of Kitty's music. (Enough of it is public domain under British copyright law for them to do that.) If so, we can then say that Laura Cantrell blazed the trail for a Kitty Wells revival. I think she would like that.