Country Legends We Love: Patsy Cline
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.”
By 1961, Decca Records signed Cline outright and set forth with the idea of casting her as a mainstream country star. Also signed to the label in 1961 was Loretta Lynn, who famously was Cline’s friend and confidant. As barnstorming performers, Cline and Lynn ran in the same circles in the late 1950s. Lynn’s star was emergent with hits like “I’m A Honkytonk Girl,” which was one of the first tracks to introduce a polished rockabilly style to country music. Similarly, Cline’s biggest hit to date for Decca subsidiary 4 Star was “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which was less rough-hewn than the rollicking, Midwestern jump-blues Cline typically sang. Decca signing both Cline and Lynn kicked off a decade-long run for the label of top ten hits starting with Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” in 1961 to Lynn’s “One’s On The Way” ten years later.
“I Fall to Pieces” was released in January 1961 and ushered in the second wave of female-defined stardom in country music. The jazzy, shuffling tune features Hank Williams’ band and Elvis Presley’s background singers, The Jordanaires. These elements were new to Cline’s career and gave her reservations about recording the single. The Jordanaires’ deep baritone voices and the appearance of a string section and orchestral elements were problematic. Thus, like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” Cline approaches the track with a sedated vocal. This style led to its immense success. As described in Rolling Stone, the icon’s vocals feel are akin to “a nerve rubbed raw by heartbreak.”
“Crazy” followed, but not before Cline was involved in a life-threatening car accident in June 1961 that left the newly-minted superstar with injuries including a broken wrist, dislocated hip, and a large cut across her forehead. Six weeks after recovery, Cline appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. Two months later came “Crazy,” a tune Willie Nelson had initially composed as a heartbroken pop ballad that Cline disliked, but -- in a manner consistent with her other hits -- recorded begrudgingly.
The take of Cline singing “Crazy” that was recorded was the only take of the song that she recorded. Nelson’s choices of using pop-styled rock instrumentation and composition, plus singing the tune with a series of unique inflections and phrasing, turned Cline against the original. A plainspoken artist raised in country music’s earnest Appalachian tradition, she endeavored -- and succeeded -- in discovering a more straightforward way to perform Nelson’s song.
Cline’s career boomed after “Crazy” achieved immense crossover success. She had already become a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1960, and in 1961, she appeared alongside Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Jim Reeves, Bill Monroe, Marty Robbins, and Faron Young at the Grand Ole Opry's show at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
By 1963, her forthcoming recordings bearing a vocal style now heavily defined by “dramatic volume control, stretched-note effects, sobs, pauses and unique ways of holding back, then bursting into full-throated phrases” left listeners both in “dumbfounded awe,” but also excited listeners about country music’s pop-crossover potential.
However, on March 5, 1963, on a flight home after a performance in Kansas, Cline -- and everyone else aboard the six-seat Piper Comanche plane -- died immediately after a crash into a forest in Camden, Tennessee.
At the time of her death, Cline left behind her second husband, Charlie Dick, plus two children, Julie and Randy. In 1973, Cline posthumously became the first female artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her career highlights include being immortalized on both postage stamps and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, plus both being one of VH1's "100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll” and one of CMT’s "40 Greatest Women of Country Music."
What may best summarize Cline’s legacy is a simple piece of advice she once gave country performer Dottie West:
“Hoss, if you can't do it with feeling, don't.”