Down In Infamy: The Death of Patsy Cline
Stars burn out, the same way a light bulb does, and it happens all the time. The brightest stars burn the hottest, and their void puts an indelible mark on whatever they leave behind. So it also happens with people; the more you know about someone, the harder it is to imagine a world without them. For country music fans, the loss of Patsy Cline was the gut punch that stole our breath away. Without warning and devoid of reason, she was gone, “down in infamy” to put it crudely. What she left behind was a body of work that touched lives and changed a genre of music forever.
She started life as Virginia Patterson Hensley, but soon into her music career she began going by Patsy Cline. Growing up fast in Winchester, VA, she was working at 15 to help support her mother and three siblings. She dropped out of school and at night was all over town, performing in fringe and rhinestone. She made a name for herself in local talent shows and on the airwaves, singing for anyone who had the time to listen. Many children long to be famous and Patsy was no exception; she knew early on that she was something special and she was hellbent on getting to where she knew she belonged. Her mother sewed all her stage outfits and drove her to gigs at night.
In 1955 she signed her first record contract, with Four Star Records, which yielded good exposure throughout Virginia and Maryland, landing her radio spots and eventual trips to the Opry. She recorded some honky-tonk songs and even experimented with early rockabilly stylings, but nothing took. In 1956, she recorded “Walkin’ After Midnight” for the first time, which became her jumping point into the national scene. An Arthur Godfrey appearance on January 21, 1957 cemented her fame. She lived off that moment for another year, making appearances and touring, writing new songs but not recording them because of the nature of her contract with Four Star. Eventually that ended, and she and her new husband, Charlie Dick, moved to Nashville.
in 1959, Cline began her professional relationship with manager Randy Hughes. She signed with Decca Records and began recording tricked out, “countrypolitan” songs. Through Hughes and her producer Owen Bradley, Patsy went uptown. She gave up the raucous, honky-tonk image she had cultivated for the sleek, dignified look and sound of a Nashville recording artist. Gone were the fringe and rhinestones, taken over by patent leather pumps and evening gowns. Her songs changed as well. Once satisfied with recording Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzel songs, she began putting out polished pop songs, that could be heard on any country radio station in the nation or cross over to the national pop charts, which many did. Her first dance with stratospheric success came with the release of “I Fall To Pieces” in 1961. This lead to becoming a member of The Grand Ole Opry, and appearances nationwide. Her following singles included, “Crazy”, “Strange”, “She’s Got You” and the list goes on.
Fast forward to 1963. She’s at the height of her fame, making appearances in different towns on a regular basis. She’s on the radio on every station, and her name has become as common to the modern housewife as Frigidaire. March 3 had her slated to play a benefit show for Cactus Jack Call, a Kansas City DJ killed in a car accident months before. She made the trek up to Kansas City, along with Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes, despite being riddled with the flu. The show went off without a hitch, but because of bad weather, the group was forced to stay over an extra day.
March 5 dawned cool and clear; no sign of trouble anywhere on the horizon. With Hughes piloting, Copas, Hawkins and Cline boarded the small 4-seat yellow Piper Comanche plane and made tracks back to Nashville. Patsy’s last conversation with her mother was had at the airport; Patsy told her she would be back in Nashville in no time; not to worry.
According to Bill Braese, the Dyersburg, TN airport manager where they landed for fuel, they would have enough in the tank to stay aloft for 3.5 hours. They left Dyersburg at 6:07 pm, which would put the back in Nashville between 9:30 and 10pm that night. They never made it; the little Piper Comanche was seen circling over a small farm about 90 miles west of Nashville, eventually nosediving into the middle of a forest exploding on impact. Local police, TN highway patrol and members of the civil defense were all dispatched to the area to search for wreckage, and by 6am, the remains of the plane and its contents had been located. Scattered through the trees and along the ground were the fragmented remains of Cline, Copas, Hawkins and Hughes, their personal belongings and what was left of the plane. The plane had hit the trees, leaving wreckage in the branches before colliding with the ground, leaving a 3-foot hole on impact. When asked if the bodies had been located, Civil Defense member Dean Brewer replied, “There’s not enough to count; they’re all in small pieces”. Turbulent weather and Hughes lack of being “instrument trained” to fly were both blamed for the cause of the accident. Families were called and remains were brought back to Nashville, with Patsy’s first going to her home, upon request, and then to her final resting place in Winchester, WV.
Patsy Cline’s star went out in a brilliant flash of light and ozone. Her meteoric rise was mirrored by her atomic fall. If she had never gotten on that plane, she would have continued touching lives and hearts for years with her music. She has inspired artists from across the genre spectrum and her voice is as distinctly known as a Ford automobile. Her mark has been indelibly left on every song that has a bittersweet backbone. Every little girl who comes up in America with the desire to be a singer will carry a piece of Patsy with her, whether she knows it or not.
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- March 13, 2010 / 2:09 pm