It was 1968, five years after the tragedy I knew nothing about. I had awakened to something that became a lifelong longing and passion. It was music, life-changing music. Unlike others my age, entering their teenage years, I was not drawn to the music of Chicago or Three Dog Night. I was falling in love with Nashville, Tennessee, with the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry, Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, and his Midnight Jamboree. The music from “clear channel 650,” WSM, which didn’t always come in that clear, became my lifeline to a world of songs.
Thumbing through some large bins of record albums, I happened across one called Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits. I probably paid about $3 for the album. I wasn’t prone to crushes, but I knew the woman on the cover was beautiful. I had no idea that I had picked up one of the greatest collections of music of all time.
It was released in 1967, four years after Patsy Cline’s death. It contained some of her best songs from 1957 to 1963. When it was re-released in 1973, it went gold. Radio stations still play “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams,” “She’s Got You,” and more. It was Patsy’s greatest recording session.
In the midst of the session, her husband Charlie Dick came in. One of the men in the station said, “What happened to you two? Did you have a fight?” That was because of the emotion of the songs. Patsy’s voice would crack at just the right moment. It was as though the loss of love, the heartbreak, the sadness had just hit her. When she lamented about the man “who takes me to the places you and I used to go,” you would ache with pain. “Faded Love” sank deeply in the heart with its gripping fiddle and vocal combination. The song was by Bob Wills, the master of western swing, but was a lover’s lament.
I was too young, too inexperienced, too naive, to have known love and loss, but the songs opened a world of emotional richness that is unsurpassed. It was akin to the first real reading of poetry, the first entrance into the imaginary world of a novelist, the first “fierce pull of blood” when reading Faulkner. It was unfathomable that anyone could hurt and sing about the hurt in that way.
What kind of a world is it where someone would do a woman wrong? Patsy sang of the pain of those wrongs for all women, for all who have been hurt. “If you’ve got leaving on your mind, tell me now. Get it over. Hurt me now. Get it over. If you’ve got leaving on your mind.”
Sometimes the troubles of life drive us crazy. Often it is love itself, irrational, controlling, and compelling that drives us past the point of sanity. Willie Nelson, then a young songwriter, penned the song “Crazy.” It was pitched to Patsy Cline, who really didn’t like it but recorded it anyway. It may be her most often replayed hit.
Then there was the pain of seeing your own wrong. “I’ve been so wrong, for so long.” It was her holding out the notes for “so” that plunged the knife deep into the soul. How many times, places, circumstances, have we been there where Patsy’s song would echo our own repentance? Then there is the defining “Walking After Midnight.” When you can’t sleep; when you can’t stay inside; when you go walking after midnight, with little certainty of finding the answer—that’s when the song comes back again to the mind.
With the pain and sorrow of so many songs, there is the relief, the promise of “I’m back in baby’s arms.” There is a joy in knowing that it is at least possible to be “back where I belong, back in baby’s arms.” As she sings in that song, “Don’t know why we quarreled. We never did before. Now that we know how much it hurts, I bet we never quarrel anymore.” How often so many of us have experienced that and vowed that. Patsy Cline was singing the Song of Solomon, the poetry of John Donne, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and all the lovers’ laments of all times.
Consider “Sweet Dreams.” Every song hearkens to a well-known sequence in this world. Love and loss. Love and hate. Loneliness and despair paired with comfort and hope. Every song bespeaks Eden’s Fall. That short time of marital bliss Adam and Eve experienced ended with their fall, blame shifting, and sorrow. Into the fallen world, tragedy and sad songs were born. “Sweet dreams of you: every night, I go through. I should hate you . . . the whole night through, instead of having sweet dreams of you.” Reading the words is so matter of fact, but hearing Patsy sing them is unforgettable. Listen to the way she hits the phrase “I should hate you.” You will agree that she should. Then her way of carrying out the phrase “whole night through” makes real the way pain makes time seem so long. But the singer can’t hate whoever it is; instead, she dreamily thinks of the love for the one who is away.
I just about wore that Patsy Cline album out over the years. Each time I played it again, it was like discovering Patsy Cline again for the first time. Then I noticed something. I wasn’t the only one still listening to Patsy Cline. In a world where singers and songs come and go and are quickly forgotten, Patsy Cline was still being played on the radio, still being honored for her music. Lots of singers covered Hank Williams’ songs, but few sang Patsy’s songs. No one could match her voice; no one could capture her emotions. She was, is, and always will be the true Queen of Country Music.
Patsy Cline died tragically on this day, March 5, in 1963. She was on a return trip after a benefit concert in Kansas City, Kansas. Two other great singers were with her, Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Their plane crashed after attempting to fly through a storm. In spite of warnings about the storm and offers of a night’s lodging and a car, the three singers and the pilot Randy Hughes, who was Copas’s son-in-law and manager, flew off toward Nashville and their tragic destiny.
Patsy Cline was born in 1934. Had she not made that tragic flight, she very likely could still be living today. Her career and successes were just beginning. About a year before her death, she survived a near tragic auto accident. She was on crutches when she first reappeared on the Grand Ole Opry. Like many singers, she was weighed down with the desire to both be with her family and further her career. It was the desire to get back home on that stormy night when she and her singers got on that plane headed to Nashville.
Somewhere in the midst of that storm, the music died on March 5, 1963. Yet it still lives.