When CMT picked the best country songs of all time, it had Patsy Cline at No. 3 ("Crazy") ... and No. 7 ("I Fall to Pieces") ... and No. 41 ("Sweet Dreams"). I would have nudged "Crazy" -- written by Willie Nelson -- even higher, past the top two (Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" and George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today").
Wherever you list her, Cline was a great country star who lived a brief and compelling country life. Now she's the subect of an excellent profile which PBS stations are airing at various times, during their March pledge drives. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
Times were tough,
money was scarce, the odds were steep ... but Patsy Cline seemed
certain: Somehow, she would be a singer.
“Nothing was going
to get in her way,” said Barbara Hall, writer-director of a new
“American Masters” profile on PBS. “She was going to fight ...
because singing was in her.”
It came out of her
beautifully. “Cline's voice was wistful, smoky, lonely, tragic and
compelling,” Liz Mechem and Chris Carroll wrote in “Legends of
Country” (Dalmation Press, 2007).
It affected people
for generations. Mickey Guyton – 33 and born more than 20 years
after the star0's death – did Cline songs at the White House and
calls her “the Adele of that time.”
The time was the
Depression; Cline was born in 1932. Her dad – a harsh man, but a
strong choir singer -- was 42; her mom was 16 and about to give
birth. They moved 19 times in 16 years, before splitting.
That was in
Winchester, Va., where the transformation began. The teen-ager (then
named Virginia Hensley) “went from an 8th-grade dropout,
who wore fringed cowgirl outfits made by her mother, to a cultural
icon,” said Michael Kantor, the “Masters” producer.
It wasn't always
cowgirl, though. Yes, Cline was influenced by the Grand Ole Opry and
Patsy Montana, but she also talked of Helen Morgan and Kate Smith.
“She earned her chops listening to big-band,” Guyton said. “She
went country-western – then she went country pop and then she was
Cline reached the
pop charts with four songs -- “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin'
After Midnight,” “She's Got You” and (breaking into the top 10)
“Crazy.” Some people said she wasn't country; Guyton disagrees:
“Country music is telling a story and expressing emotion, and
that's what she did.”
It helped that
Cline's own life felt like a country-music story. As a teen, she
helped her mother raise her brother and sister. The mom took in
seamstress jobs; the daughter worked at a poultry place (lying about
her age), a bus station and a soda fountain ... while racing to
talent shows and singing gigs.
Some went badly. In
her cowgirl suit, she sang atop the concession building of the
drive-in theater, Margaret Jones wrote in “Patsy” (HarperCollins,
1994). “She was honked at and booed.”
Other gigs, however,
went well. Cline sang with a supper club band. An Opry audition was
futile because she was two years under the minimum age of 18, but it
led to an outdoor concert with Roy Acuff. At 20, she began singing
with the Melody Boys and signed a harsh deal with 4 Star Records.
After four failed
singles, she had her break. With her mother posing as a friend who
had “discovered” her, she sang “Walkin' After Midnight” on
CBS' “Talent Scouts,” then the No. 12 show in prime time.
Hall considers that
show her favorite find. “Hearing her sing live – she's remarkable
.... But hearing the excitement on her voice when she won.” Arthur
Godfrey, the host, was charmed and promptly had her on his radio
show. The song became a hit; others followed – when she finally
“Once she got out
of her 4 Star contract, it was her and (producer) Owen Bradley,”
Like Cline, Hall
said, his tastes went far beyond Nashville traditions. “He was into
Texas swing, which is kind of big-band music.” They chose well and
argued sharply ... which was Cline's way.
“If a man got in
her way, she let 'em know,” Loretta Lynn wrote in the “Patsy”
husband, Charlie Dick, agreed. Their fights were intense, but Hall
said he told her: “One time, I did raise my hand to her and she
slugged me across the room and I never did it again.”
He was a big fan of
hers who watched their two kids during her endless road trips. In
Marc hof 1963, he heard the news on the radio: Returning from a
benefit concert, Patsy Cline, 30, and two other singers had died in
the crash of a plane piloted by her manager.
She was 30, already
a star who controlled her career. “She set that template for
Loretta Lynn, (who) influenced other people,” said Beverly
D'Angelo, who played Cline in “Coal Miner's Daughter.”
Lynn agreed. “She
and I both grew up the hard way, had to be a woman when we were
children,” she wrote. “She was a wise, older woman, even though
she was so young when she died.”