There must have been a point in 1952 when Kitty Wells paused, looked in a mirror, and gazed upon a sight not seen before that very moment: a woman with a number one song on the country music charts. On the verge of quitting her middling career only a year earlier, the person she would have seen reflected back to her was suddenly the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry and country music’s first female superstar. One marvels at what she might have felt, but some emotions are reserved only for the trailblazers.
Equally wondrous, the song that propelled her, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, was a ferocious howl of feminism. Ten years before the notion of “women’s liberation” even entered the discourse, Wells’ song, written by Jay Miller as a response to Hank Thompson and set to a familiar Carter family melody, was initially banned for being “suggestive,” and Wells was prohibited from performing it on the Opry.
But it was too late. The song had already breached the fortress walls, and even the conservative country music establishment waved the white flag. When Wells sang, “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,” she seemed to give voice to an army of women who understood the grievously unfair truth.
And grit, it turns out, is a social inheritance, passed down like a family heirloom to those paying attention. Rose Maddox, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Jeannie C. Riley were clearly tuned to the same frequency as Wells. Each produced powerful songs airing inconvenient truths about male behavior and a patriarchal society. Songs like Just Because I’m a Woman, The Pill, and Harper Valley PTA became touchstones for audiences of their era.
Wells’ legacy now rests in the songbooks and guitars of the women in today’s country music scene—and everyone can rest knowing the tradition is thriving. Below are just a few of the songs that sparkle and pop and seethe and sneer and shrug at the ridiculousness of the present.
- Tall Boy by Abby Webster. “My Daddy didn’t teach me much before we lost him to Cap’n Crunch//Straight up drowned after 17 or 20 beers//If that wasn’t clear I mean in the milk, fuckin’ passed out at 9 AM//And every man I’ve met since then’s even dumber than him.” If there’s a more efficient and brutal takedown of the male tendency to disappoint the women who rely on them, I’ve never come across it.
- Kevin Johnson by Margo Cilker. Cilker wrote this song after reading the social media posts made by a man in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being struck down. She channeled her rage and sadness into imagining who this person might be, and how he turned out the way he did. The line about his wife, “when the two laid down to bed, there was a rattle in her head,” is officially nominated for the Double Entrende Hall of Fame.
- Christian Girlfriend, by Melissa Carper. This insightful, empowering, hilarious song manages to also expose the cost and hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism. The only thing better than listening to it on repeat is seeing Carper perform it live in front of an ecstatic audience.
- Our Love is Done, by Hannah Juanita. There’s a sad tendency in some long-term relationships where one partner gets complacent, takes the relationship for granted and stops emotionally investing themself in it. And here again, if we’re being true, it’s usually a guy in this role. Juanita’s autobiographical song is a permission slip for others to also cut their losses and move on.
- Can You Hear Me Knocking, by Summer Dean. “See I run this highway up and down to the tune of an old church hymn. Can you hear me knocking, ‘cause I’m letting myself in.” Dean boldly announces her arrival with a deft nod to gospel music, and religious structures that have long kept women marginalized.
- Sad Songs, by Kassi Valazza. This song always makes me think of the iconic speech Kristin Scott Thomas gives in the brilliant show Fleabag, where she declares: “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny…we carry it within ourselves. Men don’t.” Valazza skewers the song’s antagonist for “playing sad songs that you never knew.”
- Not to Blame, by Bella White. “Why do you always get to be a child? Your mama brought you up that way.” This line, and song, slices through a lot of psychological layers in some men. A deep cut, but an honest one.
- Can Chaser, by Emily Nenni. Objectification of women exists everywhere. In this song, Nenni takes on the way ladies of the rodeo are often demeaned, while at the same time championing their abilities. “While she breaks away you’ll break a leg//She’ll run circles around you.”