I won a radio contest soon after I moved to Kansas City by knowing the date of Patsy Cline’s death.
March 5, 1963.
Fifty years ago today.
I knew the date because, like legions of others, I’d become a fan of the singer with the lush contralto voice years after her death. I’d seen Jessica Lange portray Cline in the 1985 film “Sweet Dreams” and Kansas City actress and Broadway veteran Becky Barta take her turn as Cline in the play “Always…Patsy Cline”; I’d read “Honky Tonk Angel,” Ellis Nassour’s biography of the legendary singer.
Lou Grant might have described Patsy Cline as having “spunk.” Cline’s longtime guitarist, George Hamilton IV, in a 2003 panel on “The Life and Work of Patsy Cline,” said, “When it came to Patsy clearing a place for women in country music, she was what I call a pre-feminist woman. She didn’t open doors; she kicked them down.”
It’s astounding to look back and realize her career lasted less than a decade. She was just 30 when she was killed in a plane crash, but her death turned her into a legend.
Cline had come to Kansas City, Kan. to perform in a benefit with other country stars, including George Jones and Dottie West, on Sunday, March 3, 1963, for popular DJ “Cactus” Jack McCall, who’d been killed in a car accident a month before. It’s been said that the last song Cline ever sang was “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.”
Cline’s manager, Randy Hughes, piloted a small plane that could make the trip much faster than the 16 hours it took back then by car from Kansas City to Nashville. Heavy fog grounded the plane Monday, March 4, so West offered Cline a ride but she turned her down, saying, “Don’t worry about me, Hoss. When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.”
Cline had already survived two car accidents, one of them a head-on collision that nearly killed her and left her forehead scarred. (In an odd twist of fate, West died in a car accident years later.)
On Tuesday, Hughes flew Cline, along with singers Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas to Dyersburg, Tenn. Although warned he would fly into storms, he took off and the plane crashed in a wooded area by Camden, Tenn., 85 miles west of Nashville.
Compounding the tragedy was the death of singer Jack Anglin, killed in a car crash on his way to Cline’s funeral in Nashville March 7. Anglin was part of the popular duo of Johnnie & Jack; Johnnie Wright was married to Kitty Wells, the “Queen of Country Music” who was the first woman to record a No. 1 country song and led the way for other female country singers.
Patsy Cline was born Virginia Hensley in 1932 and grew up in Winchester, Va. Her father was an alcoholic and deserted the family. Cline dropped out of high school, married, divorced and pursued a singing career. In 1957 she was “discovered” on CBS-TV’s Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts; she sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which reached No. 2 on country charts and became her first crossover hit when it made it to No. 12 on the pop charts.
She waited three years for another hit, but then they came one after the other, songs like “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” It was often love gone wrong that she sang about, but then love seems to go wrong more often that it goes right in the world of country music.
Music producer Owen Bradley added strings and The Jordanaires to the voice Emmylou Harris called “extraordinary,” creating the Nashville Sound, and Cline led the way in crossover hits. Her wardrobe moved from the fringed cowgirl outfits handmade by her mother to a more glamorous and sophisticated look.
She was among the first country stars to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She headlined shows in Las Vegas. She was the first female singer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The U.S. Postal Service honored her with a stamp. The honors and awards — many of them bestowed after her death — could fill this space.
Marking the 50th anniversary of her death is a special exhibit running through June at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A special memorial service will be held March 10, in her hometown of Winchester, where a museum has opened in her mother’s former home.
Cline also was a wife and mother and left behind a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son when she died. Her husband, Charlie Dick, is still alive and told The Kansas City Star he gets offers to write books on his late wife.
Cline could swear like a sailor but she was kind to other “girl” singers, especially Loretta Lynn. In a foreword she wrote for “Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline” by Judith Jones, Lynn credited Cline for giving her the courage to write the feminist anthems “The Pill” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With Lovin’ on Your Mind.”
“Patsy didn’t let nobody tell her what to do,” Lynn wrote. “She done what she felt, and if a man got in her way she let ’em know they couldn’t stand there. I thought that was good of her.”
“When I’m falling to pieces, going crazy,
With a heart that just won’t mend,
A bottle of wine and Patsy Cline,
And, I get by again.”
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.