September 8, 1932– Patsy Cline:
“I recorded a song called, I Fall To Pieces, and I was in a car wreck. Now I’m worried because I have a brand-new record, and it’s called Crazy!”
On a spring evening in 1963, Patsy Cline boarded a small airplane to take her from Kansas City, where she had performed at a benefit concert, back home to Nashville. She told her concerned friend Dottie West:
“Don’t worry about me, hoss. When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.”
She never arrived. The airplane re-fueled at Dyersburg, Tennessee, but then crashed after take-off, leaving a hole so huge it is still there in the Tennessee woods. Cline, along with her manager and Country Music stars Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed on impact. Her funeral brought a crowd of 25,000 mourners.
But, Patsy Cline the industry is alive and well. In 2016, Cline sold more than a million records. Like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Prince or Janis Joplin, death has not curtailed Cline’s earning power.
Two films from three decades ago, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), with Beverly D’Angelo doing her own singing, and Sweet Dreams (1985) featuring Jessica Lange in an Academy Award nominated turn, brought the struggle that was much of Cline’s life to a new audience. Both movies portray Cline as a woman who was forced to fight for her art. She fought the agents who exploited her, she fought the misogynistic Nashville establishment and, most of all, Cline fought her husband, Charlie Dick.
In Sweet Dreams, Dick is played smartly by Ed Harris, and he is shown as a drunken lout who, jealous of the attention his wife gave to her career at his expense, tries to prevent her from pursuing it, often using his fists. The film suggests that she was traumatized by him and that she spent most of her recording sessions and stage performances in tears. Dick spent the early days of his marriage trying to persuade Cline to stay at home and be a proper wife and not to pursue a music career.
Cline showed up to for a local Nashville television show appearance with a black eye after her husband had gotten drunk. Cline had had him arrested. But after Cline was gone, Dick worked the rest of his life preserving the legacy of Cline as one of the most influential singers of the 20th century. He was very critical of the films and biographies for the way he was portrayed, and he did become very wealthy from her royalties and licensing. Dick bit the big one in 2015.
“Movie? Book? I call them a lot of things, none of them printable. I came up with the idea of doing a video about Patsy to clarify so much of what was in the books and the movies. You see, she was just an ordinary girl. She loved home life, you know, cookin’, cleanin’, lookin’ after her family. I didn’t make her. Sure we argued, we were fightin’ all the time, we had a passionate relationship. But we didn’t do knock- down, drag-out fightin’. Not once.”
But, what about the legendary way in which Cline would break down while recording her songs or performing on stage? The essential reason that Cline is a true Gay Icon is this image of someone who overcame abuse by a brutish husband who tried to stifle her career. Gay people can relate to the sound of disappointment and despair in her songs.
Cline has all the requisite elements for being a Gay Icon: a tragic life and early death, a catalog of dark and poignant songs and a miserable, messy personal life. Her music brings a sense of unrequited passion and of heartache, which is meaningful to gay people my age who were unable, because of outside pressures, to express our feelings openly. Plus there is also a camp component. Her clothes, her style; I don’t think you can buy into it without a sense of irony. Cline has a very big, very unabashed voice. It’s feminine without being hesitant or girlish. And she looked big. She was a forcefully featured woman.
k. d. lang had something to do with my deep affection for Cline. I was already aware of Cline’s music and life story before lang had gained her big gay following after she came out of the closet in the late 1980s and announced herself a Patsy Cline fan. She named her band The Re-Clines, and she hired Owen Bradley, Cline’s original producer. She even claimed that she took musical advice from Cline in spiritual chats. That was enough for me to begin a quest to learn all I could.
Of all the ideas my research brought me, including the rumors that she had affairs with other gals, the thing that struck me about Cline was her Dick. He is the villain of this piece, a man who is said to have spent much of his time with her objecting to her career, but who ended up making a fortune from of the very talent he tried to kill off.
Cline remains the most popular female Country Music singer ever. Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt, and Trisha Yearwood have stated that she served as their inspirations. Her brief career produced the number one jukebox hit of all time, Crazy, written by Willie Nelson. For me, she is the quintessential torch singer.
Cline’s short life was genuinely heartbreaking. It reads like the lyrics of the ballads she recorded. She was born Virginia Patterson during The Great Depression. Her father, an accomplished amateur singer, sexually abused her as a child. The family moved 19 times before she was 15 years old. Feeling like a perpetual outsider, Cline dropped out of school to help support her family after her father walked out on them.
She sang in bars and had a cabaret act inspired by Helen Morgan, the tear-stained pop chanteuse of the 1920s. She also appeared in amateur musicals, talent shows, and on local radio.
She chose the name “Patsy” after her last name, and also a nod to singer Patsy Montana, whose cowgirl persona inspired both Cline’s moxie and costumes. She married her first husband, Gerald Cline, when she was 19-years-old, but they divorced four years later.
Cline made a big impression in the Washington D.C. music scene and appeared on the Country Music television show Town & Country before landing her first recording contract in 1954 with Four Star Records. She was with the label for four years, but they swindled her out of her record earnings and gave her crappy songs to record. Her contract was bought by Decca Records where she became the protégé of Owen Bradley, who became Cline’s guardian angel for the rest of her recording career.
Cline’s first four singles flopped, but in 1957, Walkin’ After Midnight went to number two on the Country charts, and more amazingly, number ten on the Pop charts. This is when she married that Dick who tried to get her to stay home.
Her career then stalled until 1960 when Bradley began to direct her towards becoming the leading exponent of the new Nashville Sound, beginning with her recording of I Fall To Pieces. Cline initially didn’t go for Bradley’s lush arrangements which featured back-up singing by The Jordanaires.
Cline barely survived a 1961 car accident just as I Fall To Pieces reached number one on the Country and Pop charts. She continued with Top Ten hits Crazy and She’s Got You and top albums, Patsy Cline Showcase and Sentimentally Yours. She was the first Country Music female to appear at Carnegie Hall and Hollywood Bowl, the first to headline her own Las Vegas show, and the first to appear on American Bandstand. She played the Mint Casino in Las Vegas for 35 nights.
Cline was the first solo female artist inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1973. In 2005, Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits was certified diamond for sales over 10 million. It remains the best-selling Country Music album by a female artist and is in the Guinness Book Of Records for the most weeks on the charts by a woman in Country Music.
Cline disclosed her premonitions of an early death to her close friends Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, and June Carter. Her singles Leavin’ On Your Mind and Sweet Dreams were both in the Top Ten on the Country and Pop charts when that airplane went down on a stormy evening. She was just 30-years-old when she left this world.
New recordings continue to be released after her death, and she remains a consistent bestseller more than 50 years later. Not bad for a girl who couldn’t read music and is quoted as saying: “I don’t know what key I sing in”. She had that rich, expressive, one-in-a-million alto voice and gay people always go for the talent.