Off the Charts

Patsy Cline: Country Music Groundbreaker

Country music groundbreaker Patsy Cline was born in Winchester, Virginia, in 1932. In fact, her first name was Virginia; family and friends called her Ginny. She was not, however, born with her famous voice. That was a medical quirk. A throat infection that turned into rheumatic fever nearly killed her at age 13. When she recovered, her voice had completely changed to the powerful instrument America would come to love.

The most amazing thing about Patsy Cline is that we’re still talking about her despite how short her career was. That’s the sign of true originality and impact.

Because so many of her songs have become famous, it’s surprising to realize that the only single released from her debut album on Decca, Patsy Cline (1957), was “Walkin’ After Midnight.” The record is generally more pop than the country sound of her later efforts. You can hear from the first track, “That Wonderful Someone,” that she could have been a great success in more mainstream pop fare. The backup voices, known as the Anita Kerr Singers, would go on to feature on many country albums.

This song, by the way, is by one Gertrude Burg. Discogs conflates her with the much more famous actress/author Gertrude Berg, but that seems unlikely, since Berg had no other particular connection to music.

 

A contrasting track from the same album is “Ain’t No Wheels on This Ship,” by Wayland Chandler, with co-credit given to Chandler’s boss, 4 Star Records owner W.S. Stevenson, who liked to put his name on songs he’d bought. The album Patsy Cline had actually been recorded by 4 Star but leased to Decca for distribution. The larger company was willing to take on the risk because Cline had started to get some major TV appearances, not to mention a slot at the Grand Ole Opry.

“Ain’t No Wheels on This Ship” is a great early example of Cline’s feisty energy and her ease with a rockabilly beat.

 

After a few years off from recording to tour and have a baby, Cline signed with Decca and a new manager in 1960; she also became an official member of the Opry that year. Her second album, Showcase, came out in 1961, ushered in by the single “I Fall to Pieces,” which became Cline’s first No. 1 hit. That was followed up by another chart-breaker, “Crazy,” written by a young man named Willie Nelson. Whatever happened to him?

“A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold)” combines the fast-repeating guitar chords of early rock ‘n’ roll with a bluegrass fiddle, a mixture that fans would soon come to expect in country music. The melody, by Milton DeLugg, sets Bob Hilliard’s lyrics with jumping and meandering lines that would challenge any singer’s ear. This is Cline’s second recording of the song, the first having served as a B-side for her 1957 single, “Walking After Midnight.”

 

“Crazy” was rereleased in 1962 as one of four songs on an EP. Sharing side A was Cline’s cover version of the Buck Owens hit “Foolin’ ’Round” (co-written by Harlan Howard), which had also appeared on the Showcase album.

One fun fact about this Latin-influenced heartbreaker – only early country music can put such sad lyrics to such an upbeat tune – is that it was recorded without percussion instruments beyond drum kit. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that the conga-like sounds are played by session guitarists! The Jordanaires provided backing vocals for the whole album.

 

Not long after she recorded Showcase, Cline’s life took a grim turn. She and her brother were in a serious car accident that killed several passengers in the other car. Cline flew through the windshield and required surgery and a month in the hospital to recover.

Despite chronic pain and the need to wear wigs and heavy make-up, she soldiered on with her performing career only two weeks after coming home from the hospital. Her popularity soared, bringing with it major industry accolades and her debuts at Carnegie Hall and in London, plus a 35-night stint in Vegas.

When Sentimentally Yours came out in 1962, critics loved it as much as fans and colleagues did. The album consisted mostly of covers of other artists’ hits. Among the two original songs was “Strange,” more in the rockabilly ballad genre than country. But it’s also one of the finest examples of the timbral richness and emotional range of Cline’s voice.

 

Cline was on target to become the biggest country artist of all time. But fate had other plans. Flying back to Nashville after a benefit gig in New York, Cline’s plane went down in a storm. She died on March 5, 1963, a mere 90 miles from home. Incredibly, this short career that yielded only three studio albums has been rewarded by generations of fans to the tune of 14 million in record sales.

Decca did release some vault material in the years after her death. Among those songs, on a 1964 compilation called That’s How the Heartache Begins, is a surprisingly sorrowful version of the 1902 standard “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home.” But stick with it, and the tempo and groove really get cookin’.

 

If you’re a fan, you’ll be pleased to hear that a Patsy Cline Museum recently opened within the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. It’s appropriate for Cline’s artistry and impact to be permanently memorialized.