Opinion writer
(Credit: Courtesy of Universal Music Enterprises) (Courtesy of Universal Music Enterprises)

The folks at PBS have been kind enough to let me share a sneak peek of “Patsy Cline: American Masters,” which for those of us in Washington premieres on Sunday, March 12, at 4:30 p.m., airs again on the same day at 7:30 p.m. and March 14 at 10 p.m. and is available on PBS Passport. (Those of you in other cities, check your local listings.)

Cline learned to sing by listening to big-band singers who performed at Washington and Lee University, where her father worked maintaining the school’s boilers. And she began to sing not merely because she had an obvious talent for it, but also because it was a way to make money that didn’t involve slaughtering chickens on an assembly line, cleaning Greyhound buses or working in a pharmacy.

“She liked to entertain,” her daughter, Julie Fudge, explains. “I think it was a way to not only have a dream, but to help out.”

Which is not to say that the pay in country music was particularly generous. Cline sat in with bands in between her regular jobs but didn’t exactly make enough money doing that to feel that music could be her full-time job. And when she did get her big break, it too, had a financial downside.

This clip I’m sharing with you today takes a look at Cline’s first record deal, which paid her half the industry-standard rate and also locked her into recording songs to which her label, Four Star, owned the publishing rights:

Director Barbara J. Hall argues that this contract wasn’t just bad for Cline financially; it also hampered her career by using her talent to elevate bad material as much as it could be elevated, rather than letting her record genuine hits. Producer Owen Bradley, who worked with Cline, reflected on the frustration of working with Cline on mediocre material. By the time she appeared on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” Cline had recorded four albums, but none of them had produced a hit. And while Four Star might have profited by keeping Cline within a closed loop, benefiting both from the songs she licensed and the records she sold, the company might have done better if it had freed Cline to be the star she could have been.

Even when Cline began making more money, she still faced persistent wage discrimination based on her gender in an industry that considered men the real stars. “Women weren’t headliners,” rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson remembers. “It was really a man’s field, and if they had women at all, it was just one, never more than one on a bill.”

And once Cline made the “Grand Ole Opry” show as a regular, she was even reprimanded for wearing pants.

“Patsy Cline: American Masters” walks a fine line between celebrating Cline’s prodigious talents as not merely a singer but also someone who knew how to put rare emotion into a song, and lamenting that her career was cut short, preventing her from recording more music and the kind of music she deserved. The entertainment industry may not have reached a point where women are truly equal. But at least LeAnn Rimes can wear pants on the “Opry” show now, in an unintentional homage to the woman who muscled open so much space for other women to be country stars.