There are few artists who have dug into their heartache and delivered it to the world like Patsy Cline (1932–1963).
“She had a personal identity with country music because of the way she grew up and how she felt—abused and isolated,” says author Margaret Jones, who wrote Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline (De Capo Press, 1999).
“She was very, ‘This is who I am, and to hell with you.’ Those songs expressed what she was feeling—they really touched home.”
Based on nearly 200 interviews—including June Carter Cash and Loretta Lynn—Patsy paints a painstaking portrait of the legend, born Virginia Patterson Hensley. Cline grew up the daughter of a teenage mother in the dirt-poor “hillbilly” country of West Virginia, was abused by a father who later abandoned the family, and dropped out of high school to become a waitress to help pay the bills.
“To be an entertainer coming from her background is quite implausible,” Jones says, “but she knew she was going to be a star from the time she was quite young.”
Cline’s voice, full and throaty, enchanted most everyone, but the image she portrayed was a shocking deviation from the typical female performer.
“Patsy came up in a time when women country singers were the housewife type,” Jones says. “They dressed in pinafores and crinolines. There were very few female artists who came on bawdy and brassy like Patsy did.
“Nobody married the cowgirl image with sex appeal like Patsy Cline … She grasped that archetype and really projected it back to us … She influenced the way country women began to style themselves.”
Because she grew up country, Jones says, Patsy Cline at first resisted singing the torch songs that would brand her as a legend.
“Patsy was the era of Hank Williams—pure country music. But if you listen to some of the hits she recorded, all the twang is gone; they sound like pop.”
As Patsy Cline’s music changed, so did her image.
“She started wearing glamorous gowns; beautiful, sexy, glamorous gowns,” Jones says. “She dressed dramatic and looked dramatic and played up that aspect of it. This was all part of breaking away from being the poor neglected housewife whose husband cheated on her. She would be the woman who cheated on her husband. So she turned the tables around.”
At the time, Kitty Wells was the reigning queen of country music. Soon, however, Patsy Cline eclipsed her, winning the Billboard Magazine Award for Favorite Female Country & Western Artist two years in a row in 1961 and 1962. She had a big voice that she could pack with emotion, as well as a lively persona that wooed audiences.
On March 3, 1963, Cline performed at a benefit concert in Kansas City, and was returning home to Tennessee in a private plane when the plane crashed, killing the pilot and all three passengers on board. She was 30.
Released after her death, the songs “Sweet Dreams” and “Leavin’ on Your Mind” both became Top Ten hits.
In 1973, Patsy Cline became the first female solo artist inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, with Johnny Cash, whom she toured with during the final years of her life, making the announcement during the live CMA Awards Show.
“I really think Patsy Cline will never be forgotten or go out of style,” Jones says. “Patsy Cline, more than anyone I can think of, is still just as well known today as she ever was.”