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Patsy Cline… 50 years on

On 5 March 1963, a plane flying over Tennessee encountered inclement weather and crashed. On board were country musicians Randy Hughes, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Patsy Cline. A star of both country and popular music, Cline is remembered as one of the greatest American singers of the 20th century. The following is an extract from The Encyclopedia of Country Music entry on Patsy Cline by Margaret Jones.

Popular in her time, Patsy Cline has achieved iconic status since her tragic death at age thirty in 1963. Cline is invariably invoked as a standard for female vocalists, and she has inspired scores of singers, including k. d. lang, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood, and Wynonna. Her unique, crying style and impeccable vocals have established her reputation as the quintessential torch singer.

Cline’s short life reads like the heart-torn lyrics of many of the ballads she recorded. Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Virginia, in the midst of the Depression, she demonstrated musical proclivity at an early age—a talent inherited from her father, an accomplished amateur singer.

By age twenty Cline connected with local country bandleader Bill Peer, an association that intensified her desire for country music stardom. She adopted the name Patsy after her middle name, Patterson, and possibly in a nod to singer Patsy Montana, whose feisty cowgirl persona anticipated both Cline’s spunk and early stage costuming. Cline married her first husband, Gerald Cline, on March 7, 1953, but she found the relationship unfulfilling, and they divorced four years later.

During this period Cline made inroads into the thriving Washington, D.C., country music scene, masterminded by country music’s “media magician,” Connie B. Gay. Beginning in the fall of 1954, Gay spotlighted Cline as a soloist on his Town & Country TV broadcasts, which included Jimmy Dean as host, Roy Clark, George Hamilton IV, Billy Grammer, Dale Turner, and Mary Klick. Through her Washington connections Cline landed her first recording contract in September 1954, with Bill McCall’s Pasadena, California–based Four Star Records, an association that lasted six years and became the single greatest hindrance to her career. Cline alleged that McCall swindled her out of royalties and gave her substandard material to record. Cline’s debut single, the country weeper “A Church, a Courtroom and Then Goodbye,” sold poorly when released in July 1955 on the Decca label’s Coral subsidiary (by lease arrangement between McCall and Decca A&R man Paul Cohen). Cohen turned production over to his protégé and eventual successor, Owen Bradley, who became Cline’s guiding light for the duration of her recording career.

Cline’s first four singles flopped, but the “hillbilly with oomph” act she developed on TV and in personal appearances earned her regional fame. Her recording stalemate ended when she made her national TV debut on the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show on January 21, 1957, singing “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which hit #2 country and #12 pop. Cline rode high on the hit for the next year, working show dates and performing regularly on Godfrey’s weekly CBS broadcast Arthur Godfrey and Friends and on ABC’s Country Music Jubilee, but there were no follow-up hits. Her September 1957 marriage to second husband Charlie Dick resulted in a tumultuous relationship glamorized in Sweet Dreams, the 1985 biographical film starring Jessica Lange as Cline. By the end of 1957 Cline had retreated into semi-retirement.

After giving birth to a daughter (Julia) in August 1958, Cline moved to Nashville and signed with manager Randy Hughes, who attempted to revive her career by booking one-nighters across the country and helping her ride out her Four Star contract. Back to working $50 gigs, she was at her nadir when the Grand Ole Opry belatedly made her a member on January 9, 1960. That summer she signed with Decca, and Bradley directed her toward becoming a leading exponent of the emergent Nashville Sound beginning with her recording of the Harlan Howard–Hank Cochran song “I Fall to Pieces.” Cline initially resisted Bradley’s lush arrangements, which featured backings by the Jordanaires, but ultimately accepted his guidance.

Cline gave birth to a son (Randy) in January 1961 and survived a near-fatal car accident in June as “Pieces” slowly started its climb up the charts, reaching #1 country in August and peaking at #12 in Billdoard’s pop rankings. Cline maintained her chart momentum with the crossover hits “Crazy” and “She’s Got You” and with albums such as Patsy Cline Showcase and Sentimentally Yours. Other highlights included appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Cline joined The Johnny Cash Show as the touring group’s star female vocalist in January 1962, and over the next fourteen months she played numerous dates with Cash’s “family,” which included Don Gibson, George Jones, Carl Perkins, June Carter, Barbara Mandrell, Gordon Terry, and Johnny Western.

Cline related premonitions of her death to close friends Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, and June Carter as early as September 1962. Her last public performance was a benefit in Kansas City, March 3, 1963. Returning home, she was killed in a plane crash that also took the lives of pilot Randy Hughes and fellow Opry stars Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Cline’s singles “Leavin’ on Your Mind,” “Sweet Dreams (Of You),” and “Faded Love” charted Top Ten after she died. Numerous new or reissue recordings have appeared since her death, and she has remained one of the MCA label’s most consistent sellers. The subject of both Sweet Dreams and the hit 1990s play Always… Patsy Cline, she was elected to The Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973.

Immediately upon publication in 1998, the Encyclopedia of Country Music became a much-loved reference source, prized for the wealth of information it contained on that most American of musical genres. Countless fans have used it as the source for answers to questions about everything from country’s first commercially successful recording, to the genre’s pioneering music videos, to what conjunto music is. This thoroughly revised new edition includes more than 1,200 A-Z entries covering nine decades of history and artistry, from the Carter Family recordings of the 1920s to the reign of Taylor Swift in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Compiled by a team of experts at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the encyclopedia has been brought completely up-to-date, with new entries on the artists who have profoundly influenced country music in recent years, such as the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban.

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