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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 292

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This is the grave of Patsy Cline.

Born Virginia Hensley in 1932 in Winchester, Virginia, to a seamstress mother and blacksmith father who later abandoned the family in 1947, Cline dropped out of school when her father left and worked a variety of low-end jobs to help make ends meet. She also loved singing and hung around a local radio station until she felt comfortable asking to sing on it, also in 1947. She proved herself quickly and became a local sensation. Her mother began making her Western outfits to perform with and a legendary musical career began. She married in 1953 to a contractor named Gerald Cline. The marriage wasn’t good, largely because she was rising in the musical world and he wanted her to stay home and raise a family. They divorced in 1957 but she retained his name and the stardom that she was gaining by that time.

Her first break came in 1954 when Jimmy Dean had her open for him on his shows. She got a recording contract with Four Star Records in 1955, which was a low-end label that limited artists to recording only songs by other Four Star contracted writers. She hated it, but even so, she had some good songs such as her first, “A Church, A Courtroom, and Goodbye.” But she was never going to hit it big with Four Star. The ridiculously exploitative nature of the recording industry stilted so many artists in these years. Luckily for her, the legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley thought she had tons of potential and worked with her to become the singer that you know her as. She was a more steel guitar and fiddle singer, traditional country. Bradley, with his big strings and big production, the epitome of countrypolitan that later generations would use to accuse Nashville of selling out, had his finger on the pulse of the buying public. They finally agreed to have her sing “Walkin’ After Midnight,” in 1957. That was her first hit, reaching #2 on the country charts and #12 on the pop charts, a huge crossover hit for a country artist. But it was just a one-off performance at the time and she remained relatively obscure overall.

In 1960, Cline finally got out from that Four Star contract and signed with Decca. She also had a child with her second husband Charlie Dick, who was a linotype operator who later became a minor player in the Nashville music industry. So she was still pretty unknown, despite her one big hit. Finally, Bradley could record her. And boy did he. In 1961, they recorded “I Fall to Pieces,” her first #1 hit on the country charts, which hit #6 on the adult contemporary charts and #12 on the pop charts. She had joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1960, amazingly enough because she simply asked to do so, which had never happened before. Now she was a big star. Hit after hit would come. Moreover, Cline saw herself rightly as one of the few independent female country music stars in a male-dominated field and she was determined, although still quite young herself, to mentor a new generation of young women. Most famously, she mentored Loretta Lynn and they became very close. But she also encouraged Dottie West, Brenda Lee, and a very young steel guitar player named Barbara Mandrell, who was only 13 years old when they met and who Cline thought had a good voice. All would be hugely important singers in the next 20 years, although none are particularly beloved by contemporary country music fans today.

Cline was also known for basically taking anyone who told her to be a girl and telling them to shove it. She drank, she wore pants on stage instead of dresses, she swore, and she hung out with the guys. She also refused to play before being paid, which was a real problem in the country music industry, for men or women. As Roy Acuff famously said, “If God had created anything better than cash, He would have named it cash.” And that’s because promoters and concert venue owners constantly tried to rip off the artists. Referring to herself as “The Cline,” and everyone else as “Hoss,” you did not mess with Patsy Cline.

Although she nearly was killed in 1961 car accident, she pressed on quickly after her injuries, recording a song by a nearly unknown Texas songwriter named Willie Nelson. That was “Crazy,” another huge hit, even though she was still so injured she couldn’t hit the high note because her ribs hurt too much. Hank Cochran’s “She’s Got You” came next in 1962. Many other songs–some big hits, but mostly lesser hits followed over the next year until she came to “Sweet Dreams” in 1963.

By this time, she was getting tired of the road and at least talking about taking a break. But who knows, this could be mythology as much as anything, because of course, she died in a plane crash in 1963, when a pilot trying to fly through bad weather on sight instead of using instruments, crashed 90 miles outside of Nashville, near the west Tennessee town of Camden, Tennessee. Back when I lived in Tennessee in the late 90s, I went out to the site, where there is a marker. I also knew someone who was from there who had witnessed the crash’s aftermath, but I will spare you the gory details she told me. As an aside, she also told me that Loretta Lynn was the stupidest woman she had ever met, although tempered that by noting that anyone who made that much money on her songs maybe couldn’t be that stupid. These are the stories one hears when talking to older people who have lived in and around Nashville forever.

Cline had three more posthumous top 10 country hits–“Sweet Dreams,” “Leavin’ On Your Mind,” and “Faded Love.” In 1973, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Let’s listen to some Patsy.

Patsy Cline is buried in Shenandoah Memorial Park, Winchester, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit the graves of other country musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dottie West, who witnessed Cline’s 1961 car wreck and died in her own car wreck 30 years later, is buried in McMinnville, Tennessee, while her legendary producer Owen Bradley is in Nashville. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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