An era of country music was brought to a tragic end on March 5, 1963. It was on that day that the airplane crashed that was carrying Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas. The year 1963 would later become associated with the better known national tragedy of the assassination of President John Kennedy. The struggles and tensions that defined the 1960’s were just beginning. A decade that began with great hopes was unraveling. The sadness that hit the world of country music was just one small, and overlooked, part of the greater national troubles.
At the time of the plane crash, Patsy Cline was still something of a newcomer to the world of country music. That world was still a man’s world. There had been women country singers before Patsy Cline. One in particular, Kitty Wells, had achieved great success and was the reigning queen of country music. Patsy Cline, along with some of her protégés, such as Loretta Lynn, were just beginning to carve out their own places on the stages and in the recording studios.
The two better known and bigger name stars on the tragic plane flight were Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Both were rooted in the styles and traditions that had defined what was then commonly called Country and Western Music. The real country singers wore cowboy hats, usually really large ones. The stage presence was dominated by the spangles and rhinestones of their outfits. Glen Campbell’s song later captured the image of success for a country singer in his song “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
The early 1960’s was still the era of the westerns on television and the movies. The days of singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were still in the minds and memories of the adult audiences. It was an era that would have not understood the Outlaw image and music of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings of a later time. In fact, both of them were then struggling young artists trying to find a niche in Nashville. Cowboys were still heroes. They were men in white hats. Young boys longed to ride horses, wear six shooters, and strum the guitar.
Cowboy Copas was himself not a cowboy. Born in southern Ohio in 1913, Lloyd Estel Copas was raised in a world as rural, as Southern, as rooted in country music as any state south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was a promoter who gave Copas the nickname “Cowboy” and even claimed he was born in Oklahoma. After all, who associates Ohio with cowboys? As it happened, another cowboy legend grew up in the same area and at the same time as Copas. His name was Leonard Slye. He became better known in Hollywood as Roy Rogers.
Copas became a big star in the 1940’s, alongside such singers as Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Roy Acuff. His first big hit was “Filipino Baby” in 1946. It was a song about a young soldier who loved a beautiful girl he had met in the Philippines. It resonated with many a man who had met, sometimes married, but often had left girls behind during the war. Copas had other hits, including “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered,” “Candy Kisses,” and “The Tennessee Waltz” (two years before Patty Paige turned it into a super hit). His song “Tis Sweet to Be Remembered” in 1952 was his last song to rise in the charts for that decade.
With the ever changing tastes in music, Copas went through a difficult time with his music. But his fans kept cheering him on at the Grand Ole Opry and across the country as he toured and sang. After an eight-year dry spell, his fortunes changed with the song “Alabam.” This song put Copas back at the top of the charts. It was a number one hit on the country charts for twelve weeks and remained on the charts for thirty-four weeks. It was also a crossover hit, reaching number sixty-three on the Billboard Top 100 hits.
The song “Alabam” is made up of a series of lighthearted verses. It begins with this: “I went to a turkey roast down the street. The people down there eat like wild geese. I’m on my way. I’m going back to Alabam.” Later in the song, it includes these words: “Hello Sal, Do I know you with the worn-out slipper and the torn-up shoe.” That verse and all the others end with the refrain of “I’m on my way. I’m going back to Alabam.”
What carried the song was the rhythm acoustic guitar picking. The tune is lively and catchy, lighthearted and fun. Copas would bring out a stool to sit on when playing this song so that he could perform the driving instrumental parts. The song itself and Copas’s style of playing was a forerunner of the folk and acoustic revivals of music that would periodically interrupt both the country and pop fields in the years to follow.
Following his success with this song, Copas continued using his guitar picking. The song “Sunny Tennessee” echoes guitar runs that are similar to “Alabam.” Copas also was singing alongside his daughter Cathy. Her husband, Randy Hughes, was Copas’s manager, and he was the pilot of the plane that crashed when Copas, Hawkins, and Cline were killed on March 5, 1963.
At that time, Hawkins also had a song that was climbing its way to the top of the charts. It was called “Lonesome 7-7203.” His wife, Jean Shepherd, was just beginning her music career. She still performs on the Grand Ole Opry.
Country music was a much closer-knit family back in 1963. The close friends of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Randy Hughes were stunned by the loss. The tragedy was compounded a few days later when Jack Anglin, half of the singing team of Johnny and Jack, was killed while on his way to one of the funerals. But they determined on the following Saturday night at the Opry that the music had to go on. That’s what the fans expected and those who had died would have expected.
In 1963, America was more innocent in its music. Music on the radio was still the primary source of favorite songs. Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the 60’s Protests, and the Assassinations were all in the near future. Country singers were still largely hitting audiences of working class people with Southern roots, rural backgrounds, and down-home values and experiences. One song about heartbreak would be followed by another about drinking, which was followed by another about temptation and cheating, and then there would be a song about faith, repentance, and love. The songs, therefore, reflected the lives of the listeners.
The tragic loss of beloved singers was then only a beginning of a decade of pain and losses for many Americans.