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Remembering Kitty Wells' Pillager concert

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Before country music stars filled stadiums and even before Loretta Lynn was a household name — there was Kitty Wells, the original queen of country music.

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The first woman soloist to score a No. 1 hit on the country charts toured into the late 1970s and I had a chance to interview her in her tour bus on the fairgrounds in Pillager years ago. She died Monday at the age of 92.

While I liked many country songs, I had no idea at that time who Kitty Wells was and no knowledge of her pioneering role, which brought a woman’s perspective into the genre for the first time. Had I not been briefed by former Brainerd Dispatch Editor Les Sellnow, who grew up on country classics, I would have stumbled during the interview even more than I did.

My interview with Wells was conducted under the watchful eye of her husband, Johnny Wright. Wright spent a few minutes talking with me and sizing me up before he brought in the headliner. It was apparent to Wright from the outset that I was a rube, with little knowledge of country music. Wright was pleasant enough, but I had the impression that if I had started to make Miss Wells uncomfortable at all the interview would have ended abruptly.

The story I wrote predated any computer archive systems and my middle-aged memory fails to recall much about her comments or her performance. I remember Wells as a woman who was quiet, gracious and proud of her husband and family. Her son, Bobby Wright, played in her band. An actor as well as a musician, he had played a hillbilly sailor in TV’s “McHale’s Navy” in the 1960s.

Wells, a Nashville native, seemed totally at ease in front of her small town audience, many of whom were thrilled to see a star of her stature in such a small venue.

Oddly, one of my strongest memories of the incident was a bit of writing advice I received from my editor (who later became my father-in-law). One of the concert organizers told me how much they had paid for Wells’ appearance. I thought that was an interesting piece of information but was afraid it might be tacky to reveal and I was struggling to find a spot in the story where it would fit in nicely.

Sellnow counseled me that if I was struggling to find a spot for the concert fee in my article then it probably wasn’t essential to the story and should be left out.

The chance to meet interesting people is one of the best parts of a journalist’s job and my Kitty Wells assignment left me with a lesson to be used in future stories and a brush with country music royalty.

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com. He may be followed at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews.

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Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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