Country Legends We Love: Patsy Cline

A rare artist who is simultaneously gone too soon but beloved for eternity

Patsy Cline is a rare artist who is simultaneously gone too soon but beloved for eternity. Cline died, tragically, at the age of 31, on March 5, 1963, following a post-concert plane crash in Camden, Tennessee. Her ability to gently weave her voice around and through country ballads is legendary. Ultimately, it will inspire vocalists in all genres looking to encapsulate love’s tender hold over our hearts until the end of time.

Amazingly enough, “I Fall To Pieces” and “Crazy” — the ballads for which Cline is best known — were released well over a decade into her career and only two years before her death. For six years prior, Cline was one of many western swing vocalists working with 4 Star Records and Coral Records, subsidiaries of powerhouse country label Decca Records. Female artists on these labels included pre-rock and roll era, post-World War II era American Songbook standards singers Rosemary Clooney and Debbie Reynolds.

Comparatively, the bluesy, jump-blues-inspired country with scatting vocals afforded Cline a music career, but not one with great acclaim. However, for the Winchester, Virginia native raised in a hardscrabble manner in the rural South, living well was more of a victory for the country icon than singing to worldwide appeal ever could have been expected to be.

Cline was a victim of childhood sexual abuse who also survived a pre-teen bout with a throat infection and rheumatic fever. In Ellis Nassour’s 1989-published biography Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, Cline’s time spent in an oxygen tent in recovery at the age of 13 is credited with honing her voice into one that “boomed like Kate Smith’s.” Simply put, in an archival interview, she says, “my return to the living after several days launched me as a singer.”

Cline’s Appalachian roots and newfound voice showcased preternatural skills that launched her career in just 18 months. She evolved from performing nightclub standards in dusty local clubs to auditioning for Grand Ole Opry performer Moon Mullican — the “King of the Hillbilly Piano Players” — at 15 in 1948.

Between 1948-1955, Cline emerged as a live performance favorite of a region extending as far north as Washington, DC, and south as far as the Virginia/North Carolina border. Regarding what about her style excited audiences, the Washington Star Magazine noted, “She creates the moods through the movement of her hands and body and by the lilt of her voice, reaching way down deep in her soul to bring forth the melody..”

1955 found Cline signing to Decca Records subsidiary 4 Star Records. Decca was country’s first mega-major label, setting standards for the genre that exist into the present day. Midwestern singing cowboys like Roy Rogers, honky-tonk crooners like Webb Pierce, and yes, “honky-tonk angels” like pioneering female vocalist Kitty Wells all found their roots at Decca. Into this mix emerged Cline, who by 1957 had a hit with “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Intriguingly, Cline was not initially fond of the jazzy swing tune originally proposed to vocalist Kay Starr. But after compromising with 4 Star Records, who altered it into a more bluesy country ballad, she recorded it.

AllMusic’s Richie Unterberger makes an important predictive note about the number-one chart smash. “More than any of the other songs she recorded for the 4 Star label in the 1950s, it anticipates the successful country-pop fusion of her crossover hits for Decca in the early 1960s.”

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