June 25, 2008
There are few women in the history of popular music as revered as Patsy Cline, one of the few country legends who has transcended the status of a singer and become a pop culture icon. Almost all of her classic recordings were created in a three-year span, and she only released three albums in her lifetime. However, her fame has grown exponentially since her career was tragically cut short, leaving behind questions of the music that might have been, but also immortally preserving her in her musical prime.
Cline hailed from Virginia, the daughter of a blacksmith and a seamstress. She grew up idolizing Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, and asserted from a young age that she would be a star as well. She also liked country music, being particularly drawn to the hits of Hank Williams. Cline suffered a throat infection as a child that she would later credit as a gift, believing that it was that illness that resulted in her deep-throated voice.
As a teenager, Cline competed in local talent shows and sang on the radio in Winchester. She performed in local country clubs wearing fringed cowgirl outfits that her mother created. A brief marriage in her early twenties to Gerald Cline provided her stage surname, while a later boyfriend suggested using Patsy along with it. She was soon commanding a large following in the Virginia/D.C./Maryland area, and was appearing on the television show Town and Country. She caught the attention of Jimmy Dean, who also frequently appeared on the show, and he became an early champion of her talent. Cline began appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, and she signed to Four Star Records in 1955.
Her contract with Four Star would lead to her breakthrough hit, but it would also limit her success for many years. Her voice showed great promise in both pop and country, but Four Star executives wrote in her contract that she could only record country music. Even more limiting was the clause that she could only record songs from Four Star’s publishing company. So for two years, Cline recorded an assortment of honky-tonk material that failed to capitalize on her vocal talents.
Though she would record more than fifty sides for the label, including her 1957 debut album Patsy Cline, she would only score one hit, 1957′s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” The single’s b-side, “A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold),” was intended to be the A-side, but after she performed “Midnight” on Arthur Godfrey’s television show, her label was convinced the song could be a hit. They were right, as the song went to #2 on the country chart and crossed over to the pop hit parade. “Roses” was also a hit in its own right, reaching #14 on the country chart.
Unfortunately, Four Star was unable to supply Cline with another hit, and until her contract with the label expired in 1960, her career was stuck in a holding pattern. During this time, she married Charlie Black, and their daughter was born in 1958. The family moved to Nashville soon after, and Cline secured a new manager, Randy Hughes, in 1959. He was central in landing Cline a recording contract with Decca, which would be the label she would make nearly all of her classic recordings with over the next three years.
Cline’s producer Owen Bradley sensed the crossover potential that Cline had, and her first release for the label in 1961, “I Fall to Pieces” was classic Nashville sound, featuring lush instrumentation and Cline’s finest vocal performance to date. The Harlan Howard-composed song was an absolute smash, topping the country charts and becoming a major pop hit as well. She joined the Opry cast that year, largely on the strength of the hit single.
However, a near-fatal car accident that year almost ended her career. She was forced to spend a month in the hospital, and performed on crutches once she finally returned to the road. Cline can be heard speaking candidly about the accident on the 1995 CD Live at the Cimarron Ballroom, a recording of her first concert after the accident that was discovered decades later.
While searching for a follow-up, Cline was pitched a song by hot young songwriter Willie Nelson, who had just had his breakthrough hit as a writer, Faron Young’s “Hello Walls.” Cline found the song Nelson pitched her, “Crazy,” impossible to sing, as she tried to follow his inimitable vocal style and make the melody work for her. Rib injuries from the car accident made that first recording session even more difficult, as Cline had trouble using her full voice. A week later, Cline recorded the song again after Bradley had completely revamped it into a sweeping pop ballad, and she nailed it in one take. The song became another smash, further elevating her popularity.
Cline’s crossover success made her a top concert draw, and she became the first female country artist to headline her own show. She was an assertive force on stage and off, refusing to kowtow because of her gender. She also became a champion for other female artists, giving solid support to rising stars Loretta Lynn and Dottie West.
Her two Decca albums, 1961′s Showcase and 1962′s Sentimentally Yours were top sellers. She cemented her popularity with the massive hit “She’s Got You”, which anchored the latter album and topped the country charts for five weeks in 1962. It was the last of her signature hits to peak during her lifetime, and it’s rarely noted that during the last year of her life, her hit records were on a decidedly smaller scale, a series of top ten and top twenty singles that didn’t resonate as much as her classics from the previous year, but had nice moments, including “Leavin’ On Your Mind,” “Imagine That” and the Mel Tillis-penned “So Wrong.”
In 1963, Cline went back into the studio, preparing songs that were intended to be included on her planned fourth album, Faded Love. “Faded Love” moved Cline so much in the studio that she actually began crying as she finished it, which is documented by the crack in her voice at the end of the finished recording.
On March 3, Cline performed at a benefit concert in Kansas City, and eager to get home to her children, she refused car rides back to Nashville and chose to fly, along with fellow Opry stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas. The plane flew into sever weather and crashed outside of Camden, Tennessee, only ninety miles away from its final destination. The news of the tragedy shook the country music industry, as it lost a trio of its stars, including its brightest of all, Patsy Cline.
Decca released several compilations after her death, including songs from her last sessions that became hits, like “Faded Love” and “Sweet Dreams (of You)”, the latter of which became another signature song and was made a hit all over again by both Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire. A 1967 Greatest Hits album would be the top-selling album by a female country artist for decades to come. At sales of ten million to date, today it trails only a pair of Shania Twain albums among female country releases.
The impact of Cline’s seminal recordings was further demonstrated when Cline became the first female inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Her close relationship with Loretta Lynn was described in Lynn’s autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Cline’s popularity rose again when Beverly D’Angelo portrayed her in the film version of Lynn’s book. This led to a film biography of Cline, Sweet Dreams, where she was immortalized on screen by Jessica Lange.
In the nineties, Cline’s brief recording career was encompassed with the exhaustive four-CD box set, The Patsy Cline Collection, which is one of the top-selling country box sets in history. In 1995, she was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her life was also the subject of a popular Nashville stage show, Always…Patsy Cline, which was based on letters written to a friend of hers. She was the only solo female country artist included in a series of U.S. postal service stamps in 1992, an honor that is only possible after death due to federal rules.
Today, Cline’s legacy lives on in the wealth of female vocalists that she has inspired and influenced. Her recording career was brief and she only had a handful of hits, but they’ve stood the test of time better than the best moments of most country artists’ entire careers.
The inevitable question of what might have been can never be answered, as we will never know if she would have recorded more classic songs or if her fortunes would have declined. She’ll never have the rich and varied catalog of other female country icons, and we’ll never know how age and maturity would have affected her song choices and vocal performances. But the upshot is that Cline’s talent has been frozen in time, and she will always be a singer in her prime, a legendary vocalist silenced while at the top of her game.
- “Walkin’ After Midnight/A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold)”, 1957
- “I Fall to Pieces,” 1961
- “Crazy,” 1961
- “She’s Got You,” 1962
- “Sweet Dreams (Of You),” 1963
- “Faded Love,” 1963
- Patsy Cline, 1957
- Showcase, 1961
- Sentimentally Yours, 1962
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1973
- Grammy: Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995