100 Greatest Women, #7: Patsy Cline

100 Greatest Women


Patsy Cline

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.

Patsy Cline

Essential Singles

  • “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

Essential Albums

  • Patsy Cline, 1957
  • Showcase, 1961
  • Sentimentally Yours, 1962

Industry Awards

  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 1973
  • Grammy: Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995

==> #6. Reba McEntire

<== #8. Trisha Yearwood

100 Greatest Women: The Complete List


  1. Unbelievable to me. I can think of only 4 women who could possibly be ranked above Patsy Cline yet here she is at #7.

    I can figure out who one of yours, besides the four is, and No Way. But, I have no clue on who the other one will be.

    This list is too unbalanced and definitely not giving enough credit to the ladies who laid the foundation. Without them, the others would not be. And, three of the ladies not yet included, Loretta, Dolly and Tammy, would all agree with that.

  2. My mom and grandmother have long claimed (whether accurately or not I’m not sure) that’s she’s a distant cousin of our family, which hails from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but I had no idea before reading this that she developed her initial following in the D.C. area, where I currently live! I feel cool. :)

    As to Cline herself…nothing really needs to be said. Listening through her catalogue is a remarkable experience because you realize just how much average material she was able to make sound like gold just through the quality of her voice (not that there isn’t some stellar material too). One of my favorites of hers is “I’m Walking the Dog,” a fun little ditty that shows off her awesome growl. Truly a great.

  3. Dan,

    It’s amazing to think how much more great music she could’ve made if she wasn’t saddled with that Four Star contract. Then the car crash slowing down her momentum, then the plane crash ending it all. It’s hard to believe that one of the greatest women in country music history made herself a legend with so little material, such was her talent.

  4. Funny, as I come to the list today, I am listening to a Patsy Cline song on my ipod — sung by Amy Grant on a tribute album, but I have both on my ipod and I agree with Dan M. – nothing more needs to be said about Patsy – just wish she was higher

  5. Ok well i agreed with this list all the up to Martina McBride, dixie chicks, kitty wells, Trisha Yearwood, and now Patsy Cline. I don’t get how she’s not, at least, in the top 5. She has proven that even 40 something years later that there has been no better vocalist to come from country music, and the impact she had, well that is evident in every singe female and male singer today. Everyone wants to sing like George Jones and Patsy Cline. So for me, i would place her in my top 3.
    Not only did she change country music for women, she changed country music! SHe changed peoples perspective of what country music was and could be. And to put her just one up from Trisha Yearwood, who really did nothing to impact country music, other than having an absolutely beautiful voice, is again kind of crazy to me. This lady has the best voice in country music history, and she has had the impact to match, and you rank her #7, it just makes no kind of sense ahaha.
    And as a side note Emmylou and Reba should not, i repeat should not be ahead of Miss Patsy Cline.

  6. I’m actually ok with everyone ranking above her save Maybelle Carter and maybe Emmylou Harris. I think the top 5 ladies are locked and interchangeable in ranking on any given day. The top 5 in my mind are (in no order) always Patsy, Loretta, Tammy, Dolly and Reba.

  7. It would have been interesting to see what Patsy’s impact would have been if her life wasn’t cut so short. I guess I thought she would have been higher, but I certainly understand why she’s not.

    Like Hank Williams, it’s easy to forget how short her career was, because of her iconic status.
    If I really think about it, Cline is the very first country music singer to which I was ever exposed. Before I even knew what music genres were, my parents were playing her. Much to my surprise, I ended up embracing her chosen genre when I was old enough to make my own decisions about music preference. What a beautiful voice.

  8. Good lists stir up good debates, so great job Kevin. Switch Trisha Yearwood with Tanya Tucker and my top 10 would be pretty similar (probably in a different order though). My top 3 (Tammy, Dolly, Loretta) remain constant, but their order of preference switches frequently.

  9. I’m extremely interested to see who’ll be #1. While I get to write for this site, I have absolutely no idea of Kevin’s rankings before anyone else does…and that’s the way I like it. I have my guess and reasons to back it up too.:) My guess isn’t necessarily my favorite female singer, but someone who I feel has greatly expanded the subject matters of what female singers are permitted to sing about. She was able to be controversial while maintaining her absolute popularity. Have I said too much?

  10. I Might be the only one who actually had Patsy at #7 like Kevin. I was sitting at the computer last night and thinking how the rest of the list would play out and I thought for sure Patsy would be in the top 5, but after looking at who’s left I placed her at 7. For me only the top 3 are interchangable (Dolly, Loretta and Reba). Next will be either Maybelle or Emmylou.

  11. I have Patsy third among performers on my list (I have a very important female industry executive that I don’t believe will show up in Kevin’s list). She isn’t my favorite female singer (Connie Smith is) but her importance simply cannot be overstated

    1 Jo Meador-Vaughan
    2 Loretta Lynn
    3 Maybelle & Sara Carter
    4 Patsy Cline
    5 Frances Preston
    6 Emmylou Harris
    7 Kitty Wells
    8 Dolly Parton
    9 Reba McEntire
    10 Shania Twain

    Kevin is correct in saying that Patsy’s image is forever frozen at the peak of her powers , but what a peak ! Patsy only recorded 108 studio tracks (54 after shaking loose from Four Star) but at least 30 of those tracks are simply great vocal performances. Even amidst the Four Star sludge there are gems

    Even today, when female performers hit the karaoke bars and amateur nights, there are far more Patsy Cline wannabes than there are Shania, Faith, Dolly, Loretta or whatever wannabes combined, She was that great a singer , a voice on par with the best of the best , but with attitude to spare.

    Like Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves and very few others, Patsy Cline is forever

  12. I’m rather shocked, as I thought Patsy, of all the great artists spotlighted, would be at the summit. But then again, Kevin’s essay on her did point out her many career highlights in a life that was so tragically cut short by fate. Very few artists can boast of having songs like “Walking After Midnight”, “I Fall To Pieces”, “Crazy”, and “She’s Got You” on their resumes, as well as being able to influence female artists both inside and outside the country music mainstream.

  13. Thanks. As I said, I hadn’t seen all of the rankings. I didn’t know if Pam had appeared yet or not. It would be neat to see a list of the greatest bands in country music after the greatest women list is completed.

  14. Only 7th? One ahead of Trisha Yearwood who I thought was wrongfully placed so high. Patsy is legendary. My top ten would have ran:

    1.Loretta Lynn
    2.Dolly Parton
    3.Tammy Wynette
    4.Patsy Cline
    5.Reba McEntire
    6.Emmylou Harris
    7.Shania Twain
    8. Kitty Wells
    9. Barbara Mandrell
    10.Tanya Tucker

    As single artists, but of course the Carter’s would need a place as well.

  15. Patsy shouldn’t have been at least number three. I hope Dolly is number one. Any top ten should include Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Shania Twain, Kitty Wells, and Barbara Mandrell.

  16. #7? Who did this? Dolly is still my number one, but… 1) Dolly / 2) Patsy / 3) Loretta / 4) Tammy / 5) Carters (maybe)…. country music females are really those top 4 for me!

  17. Patsy would be my number 1, followed closely by Loretta, Tammy, Dolly and Reba! Patsy has had such an influence on other singers, and has produced such classic country music. Her voice is still unsurpassed after all these years.

  18. as much as loretta is one of the giants of country music…as much as tammy was one of the greatest voices in country….it is a crime to put anyone above Patsy Cline…I’m sure Dolly is a sweetheart,but there is no one today that compares to the greatest voice in country music:Patsy Cline…none

  19. While Patsy was indeed a great pioneer and yes, I would rank her in the top three, keep her career in perspective. She had only one top ten pop hit #8 ‘ Crazy’. She had four top forty pop singles. She never earned a gold record in her lifetime and yes her career had peaked by the end of her life.. It was the Loretta Lynn movie ‘ Coal Miners Daughter’ that got things rolling on her catalog. Her greatest hits package finally went gold a year after the movie. Today it is a diamond album at 10 million units.

  20. OK, this list is a year and a half old…but…Patsy Cline at #7 is a slap. Top three or maybe top two. A voice and emotion from God alone, one of the best popular female singers of any genre or era.

    Covering a Patsy Cline song is as pointless as covering Roy Orbison. You can’t compliment voices like these. One would just demonstrate that they’re not in that league.

  21. I remember when I first heard “I Fall to Pieces.” It was my first favorite song and still holds up today. However, she had very little material and is known mostly for her singles instead of the albums on a whole. I think Dolly and Loretta are more worthy because they’ve had a much more extensive discography and their albums have reached critical acclaim. Coat of Many Colors and Van Lear Rose are both considered to be among the best country albums ever made.

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