An undeniable influence in the world of country, success came somewhat late for Wells, who in 1952 recorded what would become her signature track, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” At the time, the then-33-year-old wife and mother was preparing to call it a day in the music industry to become a homemaker.
The song ended up topping the country charts for six weeks and even crossed over into the Top 40, making her the biggest female country star after World War II. Her success paved the way for future female singers whom Nashville had previously considered not worth the investment.
“I wasn’t expecting it to make a hit,” she told the Nashville Scene in 1999 about the cut she recorded to collect a $125 union-scale wage. “I just thought it was another song.”
A counter to Hank Thompson’s Number One hit “Wild Side of Life” – a track in which the singer blamed the woman he picked up at a bar for ruining his life – the J.D. Miller-penned words for “It Wasn’t God…” became an anthem for women in a post-war America marked by rising divorce rates and changing sexual norms. The NBC radio network deemed the track “suggestive” and banned it; the Grand Ole Opry initially wouldn’t let Wells perform the track but ultimately changed their minds.
Born Muriel Ellen Deason in Nashville on August 30th, 1919, Wells grew up listening to a mix of Grand Ole Opry and gospel music. Wells’ long career included stints playing with her husband Johnnie Wright and making appearances on hit radio shows like “Louisiana Hayride” and the Opry; in 1968, she had her own syndicated television show and in 1974, she made a record with members of the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band. In her 27-year career, 84 of Wells’ singles appeared on the country charts, with 38 of them making it to the Top Ten. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and in 1991, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award – an honor only two other country performers, Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, have ever received.