Editor’s note: Saturday (Sept. 8) marks the 80th anniversary of Patsy Cline’s birth.
Indisputably, Patsy Cline is a country music legend. That much is clear as soon as visitors hear a one-track recording of her magnificent voice on “Leavin’ on Your Mind,” which occasionally floats over a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
Patsy Cline: Crazy for Loving You portrays the singer as an honest, hard-working mother who worried about her family, phone bills and car repairs. Oh, and she also had a keen eye for designing her own stage wear and a really cool collection of salt-and-pepper shakers.
Cline’s husband and daughter worked closely with the Hall of Fame on the exhibit, which runs through June 2013. Perhaps the most revealing artifacts are from Cline’s own hand.
“We are displaying some of Patsy’s beautifully handwritten notes and letters, in which she chronicles her career and describes the struggles and triumphs of her day-to-day life, on the road and at home,” says curatorial director Mick Buck. These letters allow Cline to speak for herself nearly 50 years after her death, he adds.
“This approach appealed to us for a couple of reasons,” Buck says. “Primarily, we hope it helps our visitors feel a connection to the very real and down-to-earth woman behind the Patsy Cline legend. Because many aspects of Cline’s dramatic life story will already be familiar to a lot of people through the half-dozen or so books about her, as well as documentaries, Hollywood films, and other media, we thought it would be appropriate, as well as poignant, to give Patsy the opportunity to narrate her own story as much as possible.”
The exhibit includes several documents that show how much Cline struggled financially before she began receiving substantial royalty payments from early 1960s hits such as “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” For example, in a 1960 letter to her mother-in-law, Cline admits that she couldn’t justify paying the deposit to get her phone turned back on or to dole out money for much-needed car repairs. In the same letter, she describes how she had to wash two loads of laundry and cook for the family immediately upon her return from a lengthy road trip and tour.
“I feel that such candor helps to humanize Patsy, while providing a window into the far-from-glamorous life that Cline and other country music stars led during that era,” Buck says.
“We also included a 1960 royalty statement from Four Star Records, which shows her actually owing the label nearly $5,000. This is about as clear an indication as one could find of how she was taken advantage of by the awful recording contract she signed with Four Star in 1954. That unfortunate contract prevented Patsy from earning royalties until she signed with Decca in 1960. It also sheds light on why Patsy was struggling just to pay the bills, despite the fact that ’Walkin’ After Midnight’ had been a huge chart success in 1957.”
Cline was born Sept. 8, 1932, as Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Va. Her family moved around the state 19 times before she turned 15. After her father abandoned the family, she settled with her mother and siblings in Winchester. She dropped out of school at age 15 to help support the family.
At 20, she started singing with local country bands and married Gerald Cline. They divorced four years later. (The stage name “Patsy” may have been inspired by cowgirl singer Patsy Montana.) In her early 20s, Cline started to get attention in the Washington, D.C., area and signed with Four Star Records in 1954. Her singles didn’t do well initially, but her vivacious personality helped her win a national TV talent show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, in 1957. As a result, “Walkin’ After Midnight” became her first real success, peaking at No. 2 on the country chart.
But within a year, the hubbub had died down. She married second husband Charlie Dick in September 1957 and welcomed their daughter Julia in August 1958. They moved to Nashville to hopefully resurrect her struggling career. An Opry invitation followed, she signed with Decca and reunited with producer Owen Bradley, who also led her Four Star sessions.
The Clines welcomed their son Randy in January 1961. Patsy nearly died in car wreck that June and faced a grueling recovery. Yet four years after her initial chart run, she scored a No. 1 country single with “I Fall to Pieces” in August. “Crazy” and “She’s Got You” followed in 1962.
Of course, her rags-to-riches story has a tragic ending. Her fatal plane crash on March 5, 1963, is represented in the exhibit by the wristwatch she was wearing at the time of her death. The plane’s clock is also displayed — and it has been suggested that the hands on the watch are frozen in time at the moment of impact.
Despite her brief career, Cline’s legend continues to resonate. Vintage collectors will admire her stage wear ranging from Western to classy, her diverse collection of earrings and her elegant jewelry box. Meanwhile, country music historians will savor the newly-recorded interviews with her friend Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson (who wrote “Crazy”), session guitarist Harold Bradley (who played on “Crazy”) and Ray Walker of the Jordanaires (who sang on “Crazy”).
That compelling interview footage is interspersed with recordings of Cline’s rich, distinct voice — all alone. The effect is stunning because of its clarity as well as its haunting nature.
“We had access to many of Patsy’s multi-track recordings, which featured her isolated vocal on one track,” Buck explains. “When we started listening to the isolated vocal tracks, we were deeply moved by the sheer emotional power and nuance that Patsy could communicate with her voice alone.
“By incorporating these spine-tingling examples of her voice into the exhibit, we are offering the public something they wouldn’t hear anywhere else. We hope they when people leave the exhibit, the memory of her incomparable voice will be their most lasting impression of Patsy Cline, and will serve as a reminder of why, after 50 years, she is still regarded by many as the gold standard for female country singers.”Read more about the exhibit.