Today we have Part II of Matthew D. Linton‘s exploration of the intellectual history of country music (Part I here). Matt draws together old and new, demonstrating lines of continuity between some of the first commercially successful women in the genre with some of the independent voices of today. Enjoy!
In 1952, Hank Thompson released the hit single “The Wild Side of Life.” It told the story of a young woman who chooses the “gay night life” and “places where wine and liquor flow” instead of settling down and marrying the “only one that ever loved you.” “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels,” he crooned, “I might have known that you’d never make a wife.” Like the fallen women in Johnny Cash’s “Cry, Cry, Cry” and Ernest Tubb’s “You Nearly Lose Your Mind,” Thompson’s naïve lover is lured from her natural and safe place in the home for the bright lights of town, presumably to intoxication and promiscuity (“you wait to be anybody’s baby” Thompson sings). Country music’s leading men expressed a deep anxiety about the changing role of women, particularly as they had more autonomy outside the home. By 1950, a wife leaving the home and potential cuckoldry were so intertwined that “stepping out” was a synonym for infidelity.
“The Wild Side of Life” was a massive hit for Thompson, spending fifteen weeks at the top of the Billboard country music chart and launching a successful career. More important than the single’s content or even its success was the response it drew from a young unknown musician named Kitty Wells. That same year she recorded a response, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” (1952), lambasting Thompson and other male country musicians for solely blaming women for the honky-tonk’s culture of loose morals. Written from the perspective of Thompson’s fallen “honky-tonk angel” and imitating the sound of “The Wild Side of Life,” Wells recounts a tale of a moral (read: good Christian) woman lured to sin by lustful men. As she sings in the chorus, “Too many times/married men think they’re still single/that has caused many a good girl to go wrong.” Thompson was correct, God didn’t create honky-tonk angels, they were created by men who had unmoored sex from marriage, desire from commitment. Continue reading