A Little Bit Country -- the music of Patsy Cline
Pop Culture Released - Feb 09, 2014
Country Music has never quite gotten over Patsy Cline. She burst onto the music scene a star of the first magnitude, changed everything with her voice and her dignity, and before anyone realized the full extent of her impact, she perished in a plane crash. Her stature has never diminished. Forty years after her death she was voted Number One on CMT’s The 40 Greatest Women of Country Music.
Patsy Cline’s legacy rests largely on three songs: “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” All three scored big on Country, Adult Contemporary, and Pop Music record charts. The only country singer to rival her broad appeal was Elvis Presley.
Before Cline recorded her first record in 1955, country music was mostly a man’s profession. Men wrote and sang the songs, played the instruments, and produced the records. The only woman of consequence was Kitty Wells. With her quivering vocals and unmistakable southern drawl, Wells was pure country with limited appeal outside the South. Cline, on the other hand, in possession of a full-throated and sophisticated voice, was (to quote Marie Osmond) “a little bit country.” Her appeal was coast to coast.
Cline was born in Winchester, Virginia, 60 miles northeast of Washington D.C. She began singing early, mostly in church with her mother, and admired singers such as Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, and Judy Garland. She was blessed with perfect pitch. At 13, she was hospitalized with a throat infection and rheumatic fever. “The fever affected my throat and when I recovered I had this booming voice like Kate Smith.”
Her father abandoned the family when she was 15. To help pay the bills, she quit high school and worked as a waitress. While not waitressing, she watched performers through the window at the local radio station. She asked the talent coordinator if she could sing on the show. Her first performance in 1947 was so well received that she was asked back. This led to performances at nightclubs and roadhouses around the Winchester area. In 1954 Jimmy Dean, a young country star in his own right, caught her act and invited her to become a regular on his “Town and Country Jamboree” radio show, broadcast from nearby Arlington, Virginia.
By then, Cline was under contract to manager Bill Peer, who got her signed with Four Star Records. She recorded a number of songs none of which sold well or reflected her broad appeal. Too country.
WALKIN’ AFTER MIDNIGHT
In 1956, two things happened that put her career on the high road to success. First, she recorded “a little old pop song” that she didn’t particularly like entitled, “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Second, she auditioned for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” in New York City. Godfrey’s producers liked her voice but not her choice of songs. They would let her perform on national television if she sang “Walkin’ After Midnight.” They also insisted she wear a cocktail dress instead of her usual cowgirl outfit. Reluctantly, she agreed. The audience embraced her and she won the competition easily.
“Walkin’ After Midnight” reached No. 2 on the Country Music chart and No. 16 on the Pop Music chart, making Cline one of the first country singers to have a crossover Pop hit. While she had no other hits with Four Star Records, she stayed visible by making personal appearances and performing regularly on Godfrey’s radio show, as well as performing for several years on ABC TV’s “Jubilee USA.”
While she failed to chart a follow-up to “Walkin’ After Midnight” she did meet “the love of her life,” a good-looking ladies man named Charlie Dick. After the birth of their daughter, Julie, in 1958, they moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville was not yet the center of the country music recording industry, but it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry. By 1960, Cline was an Opry regular and one of its biggest stars, but she had not had a hit record in nearly four years. When her contract expired with Four Star, she signed with Decca Records-Nashville, which was under the direction of producer Bradley Owen.
As with record producers Phil Spector in Los Angeles, Tom Dowd in New York, and Sam Phillips in Memphis, Owen was a sound pioneer. Working out of a small studio attached to his house, known as “Bradley’s Barn,” the Nashville producer was pushing country music in a new direction, away from backwoods’ fiddles and honky-tonk pianos to what would become known as the Nashville Sound--silky steel guitars, lush string arrangements, and chorus. It was a sound designed to play north of the Mason-Dixon line, and it fit Cline’s singing style like a glove.
Bradley had just the song for Cline, written by a pair of up-and-coming Nashville song writers named Hank Cochran and Harland Howard. Cline liked neither the song nor the direction Bradley was taking country music, but desperate for a hit she agreed to make the record. The song was “I Fall to Pieces.” The song climbed to the top of the Country chart, garnering Cline her first No. 1 hit record. In a major feat for country singers at the time, the song reached No. 12 on the Pop chart, and No. 6 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Cline bore a son, Randy, in 1961. That summer, she and her brother were involved in a head-on collision in Nashville, which nearly killed her. After a slow recovery, she returned to the studio to record a follow-up to “I Fall to Pieces.” This time, it was her husband Charlie Dick who had the perfect song for her, written by yet another up-and-comer named Willie Nelson. Nelson had knocked on nearly every door in Nashville hoping to find someone who would record his song. At wits end, he spotted Cline’s husband in a bar and performed his song for him.
Cline listened to Nelson’s demo and, of course, didn’t like the song. First, she said it didn’t suit her. Then she claimed the song was too difficult for her; she couldn’t hit the high notes because her ribs still hurt from the accident. Meanwhile, studio musicians were being paid to stand around while Cline and her producer argued over the merits of the song. In an era where the standard was to record four songs in one hour, Cline spent four hours on one song and had nothing.
A week later, she returned to the studio, hit the high notes, and recorded the song in a single take. By late 1961, “Crazy” was a crossover hit, straddling the Country, Adult Contemporary and Pop charts, and went on to become Cline’s biggest hit and signature song.
THE ONE AND ONLY
Cline was now a star of the first magnitude, and the first woman country singer to headline her own show. She was so respected that rather than being introduced as “Pretty Miss Patsy Cline” as her female contemporaries were, she was introduced as “The one and only--Patsy Cline.” She was the first woman in country music to perform at Carnegie Hall, and the first to headline her own show in Las Vegas. And she headlined a show at the Hollywood Bowl with Johnny Cash. Most importantly, she was the highest paid, getting $1,000 per show versus $200 paid other female country singers.
Cline was back in the studio in late 1961, recording songs for her next album. The single was another Hank Cochran song, “She’s Got You.” Cochran pitched the song over the phone and she fell in love with it. Released in early 1962, “She’s Got You” topped the Country chart, reached No. 3 on Adult Contemporary, and No. 14 on the Pop chart. By now, Cline’s crossover appeal was so great that she appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. When asked about her singing style, she said, “Oh, I just sing like I’m hurt inside.”
Cline enjoyed being a star but never lost sight of her roots. Believing there was “enough room for everybody” she befriended and encouraged women starting out in country music, including Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, Jan Howard, 16-year-old Brenda Lee, and 13-year-old Barbara Mandrell. According to Lynn and West, Cline would do anything to help a friend in need, buying them groceries, furniture and hiring them as wardrobe assistants. On occasion, she paid their rent, enabling them to stay in Nashville and continue pursuing their dream. Honky-tonk pianist and Opry star Del Wood said, “Even when she didn’t have it she’d spend it--and not always on herself. She’d give the skirt off her backside if they needed it.”
By now, Cline was comfortable with producer Owen Bradley and the musical direction they were taking, and for her albums was including pop songs by the likes of Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers. Cline and Bradley were planning an album of Broadway show tunes which was never completed. In 1963, at the height of her career, Cline died in a private plane crash.
In his 2003 book “Remembering Patsy,” guitarist Harold Bradley (brother of producer Owen Bradley) put Cline’s impact on Country Music in perspective: “She’s taken the standards for being a country music vocalist, and raised the bar. Even now, women are trying to get to that bar . . . If you’re going to be a country singer, and if you’re not going to copy her--and most people do come to town doing just that--then you have to be aware of her technique. It’s always good to know what was in the past because someone might think they’re pretty hot until they hear her . . . It gives all the female singers coming in something to gauge their talents against. And I expect it will forever.”