To go from early 2000s beach country to an absolute legend with Kitty Wells’ legendary Country Hit Parade is, at first, a little jarring. The classic sounds of steel and twang are much more present in her iconic songs. Yet, the reality is, Chesney is in the same lineage, and you can see it in songs like “The Good Stuff” and “A lot of things Different.”
But we’re here to talk about Kitty Wells. To be honest, I knew who she was, I had heard “It wasn’t God Who made Honky Tonk Angels” and “Heartbreak USA,” but I hadn’t thought much about them. Then, I listened to the whole of this album (I actually listen to each album several times) and I was amazed. The emotion, matter-of-factness, and power in her sound moved me.
I think the best songs on the album are “Release Me,” “There’s Poison In Your Heart” and “The Things I Might have Been.” These songs, all about relationships, all take three very different directions. “Release Me” is a woman who want to get out of a relationship. Whether she loved him or not, whether she’s married to him or not, she wants out. At first, I thought it was a defiant, here’s what I’m doing in a polite way, but as a conversation with a friend led me to see it as a desperation. She is longing to leave a relationship that she does not love. Either way, she names it a sin to stay in a relationship that there is not love, even if that’s what you were supposed to do. And in the 50s, for a woman to publicly name her desire to leave a relationship is a powerful statement.
Then, “There’s Poison in Your Heart” sings of a man who is a smooth talker who claims to love this her enough to “change her name” but she knows. She knows who he is, where he’s been, and what the outcome will be if she falls for his charms. This song is a call to pay attention to the actions of folks and find out if they are not truly faithful and honest people.
Finally, “The Things I Might have Been” is my favorite song on the album. This song is a song of thanks and devotion to the person that made her who she is. She’s thinking about how things might have been and naming her joy that she found someone who makes her happy and the person she is today. Of note, she doesn’t name better offers, only the potential dead end lives she could have lived. And perhaps this might be a coping mechanism, but with all the other sad lyrics on this album, a love song is welcome.
From a faith and ministry standpoint, these songs offer us some things to look at.
“Release Me” offers the reminder that while, as some of her other songs names the realities of infidelity (“Cheatin’s A Sin” and “Backstreet Affair”) this song reminds people that staying in an unhappy marriage can lead to sin as well. It is better to end a marriage than drift into toxic relationship status. Now, I’m not saying don’t work on your relationship, but I’m also saying, don’t stay just because society tells you to. As people who lead in congregations, engage with people, we need to be mindful of how we speak about relationships and realities.
“There’s Poison In Your Heart” of course is about, at face value, dishonest smooth talkers. But, why not look at it from the perspective of “false prophets” or, as the parable in Luke suggests, “The Wicked Stewards.” That is, people who will use charm and even the faith to get what they want, even if it’s not helpful. In the song, this man is likely wanting a good time, not a long term relationship, as he has continually caused grief for the singer. And, as we see in life, there are people who will say one thing to get to another. Particularly in ministry, we need to make sure there is not poison (or ulterior motives) in our language of faith, hope and love.
Finally, “The Things I Might Have Been” could easily be a salvation love song. But in the end, I think that’s the lazy answer. Instead, let’s think of it in terms of the church asking questions about it’s present and past. Churches often dwell on the lost futures they might have had (or he pasts that they wished had frozen in place), but they don’t think about the realities of what might have been. They might have closed up due to budget issues. They might have been so inward focused the failed to do any missions. They might have been so apathetic to ministry, that they just bored themselves to death. Therefore, when we get the “we used to’s” and “if only’s” we need to respond with the reminder that there are many other futures they don’t name.
Let me know what you think.
As with think about the practicality of it all, I name some of it above, but most of all, remind people to be be aware of the reality of life, not the perceptions or expectations. Whether it’s proper to stay in a relationship even when it’s not working (whether in life or the life of the church), to pay attention to the motives (or our motives) when we use language and action, and finally, to remind ourselves that while the world is not ideal, there are not just rosy alternatives.
As always, here’s a link to the play list with these three songs plus all the others.
Also, if you like country music reflections, consider listening to my podcast on rural life, I start each episode off with a song reflection (and in fact, “Release Me” will show up in one of the first 5 episodes).