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The Horrific Racism of Kitty Wells’ Cyrano

The monster was the man behind the curtain in the case of Kitty Wells, the country singer who died on July 16 at age 92. As the fittingly reverential tributes to Wells have reminded us this week, she has a place of immutable high standing in pop-culture history for recasting the role of women in country music. It was 1952, and the number-one hit on the “hillbilly” charts was a tuneful defense of male infidelity called “The Wild Side of Life.” Co-credited to the early country songwriter William Warren and the record’s singer, Hank Thompson, the song shifts the blame for bad-boy behavior to predatory temptresses. (It was Genesis set to the tune of an old Carter Family song called “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.”) At the urging of a producer for Decca, Wells recorded a response to the Thompson record, an “answer song” that stood up for “honky tonk angels” and shifted the blame for their promiscuity to Machiavellian bar dogs. Both of the songs were a bit titillating but conventionally moralistic; the big difference between them was the gender they accused of starting all the two-timing.

The record Wells made, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” was radical for daring to defend scorned women, and became the first number-one hit by a female artist on the Billboard country chart. More than that, it repositioned the image of women in country music and inspired countless female singers and songwriters, including Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton. As the lyrics say:

            It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women
            It’s not true that only you men feel the same
            From the start most every heart that’s ever broken
            Was because there always was a man to blame              

Duly recognized as an anthem of proto-feminism, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was written (words and music), not by Kitty Wells, but by a producer and songwriter named J.D. Miller, who died in 1996. The J.D. stood for Joseph Denton, and the fact that he was a man does not diminish the value of his song as a positioning statement for stalwart women. After all, it was a male person, Lorenz Hart, who wrote the lyrics to “A Lady Must Live” (with music by Richard Rodgers) for Broadway in the 1930s, and another guy, Gerry Goffin, wrote the words to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (with music by Carole King) for teen radio in the 1960s. (Like “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was written as “answer song,” a response to one of the many songs titled “Tonight’s the Night,” all of which are about doing it, finally.)

The problem with J. D. Miller lay not in his chromosomes, but in his brain cells. However enlightened we may take “Honky Tonk Angels” to be in its attitudes toward sex, Miller’s later work in another sphere of music was horrifically wrong-headed—indeed, dangerous. An avowed segregationist, Miller, during the Civil Rights era, founded a record label called Red Rebel records, out of Crowley, Louisiana. At Red Rebel, Miller took under his wing a Cajun singer named D. J. Trahan, renamed him Johnny Rebel, and produced a series of records that stand among the vilest expressions of hate that I’ve ever been exposed to. If there are uglier pieces of garbage than the songs J.D. Miller produced for Johnny Rebel, I’ve never heard them. I feel filthy just typing the titles: “Ship Those Niggers Back,” “Who Likes a Nigger,” “Coon Town,” “Lookin’ for a Handout,” “Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way),” and “Leroy, the Big-Lipped Nigger,” among others. (I listened to them all for this piece, to make sure I wasn’t misinterpreting works of parody.)

It is worth paying attention to the man behind the curtain, in this case, because all those songs are still in circulation in the insufficiently underground world of white-supremacists, where recordings by “Nazi punk” and “hatecore” bands serve racial and ethnic slanders set to country, punk, and heavy-metal music. We should remember what J.D. Miller later did, even as we honor the good day when his weakness for shifting the blame found worthy form in a song for Kitty Wells.