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The story of Patsy Cline's climb to fame isn't a happy story.
Cline's childhood was difficult, and her path to success as a musician unsteady and hard. When she recorded her biggest hit, "Crazy," in 1961, she was recovering from a car accident that had nearly killed her. Less than two years later, Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at age 30. Friends say she'd even had premonitions of her own death.
By the time she died, Cline had pushed and fought her way into being the first female superstar in country music.
Patsy's story begins with her birth as Virginia Patterson Hensley—nicknamed Ginny—in rural Virginia in 1932. Ginny's father, Sam Hensley, was a professional blacksmith and an amateur musician, known around town for his abilities as a singer. He was also described as having an "ungodly, uncontrollable temper" (source), a problem that only got worse after his return from service in World War I.
He was both a flashy, charismatic figure, and a dangerous one. When he married Patsy's mother, Hilda Patterson, she was only 15 and he was 42. Sam Hensley abandoned the children he'd had with a previous wife and moved around with his new family, going from job to job in the middle of the Great Depression.
Friends and relatives have painted a picture of a home life "charged with guilt, shame, and fear" (source) for little Ginny Hensley. Her father controlled and threatened her mother, often violently, and Hilda struggled to protect herself and her little girl. As an adult, Patsy Cline suggested to many of her friends that she was sexually molested by her father over many years. Her family life was private, abusive, and quite worrisome to outsiders. The largely undisclosed trauma stayed with her for the rest of her life.
But Cline's musical prowess also comes from decades of devotion to becoming a great singer. From the age of 10, Ginny Hensley was obsessed with country music. She knew she wanted to be a country singer, and her dream was to go on the Grand Ole Opry, the weekly live radio show that set the standard for country music in those days.
But when she was only 15, her father left her and her still-young mother, and Ginny went to work waitressing to support her family. She also performed as often as possible in talent shows and nightclubs, but garnered little attention beyond the little town of Winchester, Virginia, where her family had moved.
Relationships were a trouble area for Ginny Hensley, who became Patsy Cline in the mid-1950s. Ginny's first boyfriend was apparently a married man, a charismatic piano player more than a decade her senior who enjoyed her company but avoided admitting to an affair with her. She was always drawn to charisma and frankly, to a bit of drama, so her friends and family were surprised when she suddenly married Gerald Cline in 1953.
Cline was a slightly older man who owned a construction company. His apparent stability appealed to the young singer even though she herself called him "dull" (source) in the personality department. She didn't tell her friends about the match until she'd already gotten the marriage license, changed her name to Cline, and moved in with Gerald.
While living with Gerald, though, she had a tumultuous extramarital affair with fellow musician Bill Peer. Juggling men, jobs, and emotions, Patsy Cline kept making music and struggled to land a contract as a singer. She finally got one with Four Star Records in 1955.
What should have been a straight road to success for Patsy Cline turned out to be a trap: Four Star would only allow her to record songs by a short list of their own writers, which limited her artistic freedom, and guaranteed royalties for that select few. She sang country and honky-tonk well, and had a couple of Grand Ole Opry appearances, but her career never took off with Four Star. She had a hit with "Walkin' After Midnight," but little luck with hit songs on Four Star before or after.
Her love life faltered, too. She divorced Gerald in 1957.
Soon after that, Patsy met Charlie Dick, who was both the love of her life and the source of a lot of trouble for Cline. People describe their relationship as violent and abusive, although a lot of mystery still surrounds this issue. Some say both were culprits. Others show Charlie as abusive and controlling. In general, people who knew Patsy say she was a tortured soul, and that she never could find a way to satisfy her needs. Charlie was a way to try.
Turbulent though things were with Charlie, their marriage led to some good for Patsy. The couple moved to Nashville, and she ended her Four Star contract and made a deal with Decca Records in 1960. The first song she recorded with full artistic liberty was the smash hit "I Fall to Pieces", which topped the country charts but also charted as a pop hit.
Back then, pop hits for country singers were still a rare thing, and Nashville's recording industry was searching for the key to pop success. Patsy's smooth voice, combined with the famous production of Owen Bradley, turned out to be just the ticket. By 1961, her dream had come true: she was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry.
Cline's luck hit a low again when she was severely injured in a car accident in 1961. But she returned to the studio anyhow to record "Crazy," a new tune by Willie Nelson that gave her so much trouble in the singing department that she had a huge fight with Owen Bradley. Cline apparently felt the song was too hard to sing. Bradley, convinced they had a hit in the making, pushed the issue.
The group of musicians toiled for hours in the studio—at a time when many classics were laid down in a half hour or less—and Patsy was reportedly frustrated to tears by the time she left. A single vocal take in the studio solved the problem the following week, and despite her initial resistance, "Crazy" became her most legendary hit.
In 1963, at the height of her performance career and still riding high on a series of popular singles, Patsy Cline was killed in a plane crash.
Those who knew this larger-than-life figure were stunned. And for those who didn't, Patsy's life and success quickly became legendary. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, to the great excitement of her friends and fans. And she had sales comebacks in both the 1980s and the 1990s.
What is it about her music that makes the impact last through decades? Music journalist Richie Unterberger said, "While the standards of professionalism on her recordings have been emulated ever since, they've rarely been complemented by as much palpable, at times heartbreaking emotion in the performances." (Source)
In other words, people agree that there was just somethin' about her.
"Patsy was always so full of joy—on the outside," says her good friend Dottie West. "On the inside, she dealt with a lot of hurt and unfulfilled promises" (Ellis Nassour, Honky Tonk Angel, xi). This longing, achy sadness in the charismatic singer is what many people hear and feel when Patsy Cline sings "Crazy." She sounds tortured; her voice swoons and cries, even in a major key.
Cline, however, attributed her voice's wrenching depth to a bout of illness in her childhood: "You might say it was my return to the living that launched me as a singer," she said in an interview. "In my early childhood I developed a serious throat infection and my heart stopped beating. I was placed in an oxygen tent and the doctors brought me back to life. I recovered from the illness with a voice that boomed like Kate Smith" (Jones 15).
Indeed, although she sang out her pain beautifully in songs like "Crazy," in person she was the type to crack a joke or tell a good story rather than moan or complain. She was also the type to give away the coat on her body to a needy friend, and to fight back with those who stood in her way. It was her personality, not just her voice, that made her the legend she is today. Perhaps more importantly, it was her friends' flattering memories of who Patsy was. After all, legends are only made through the telling, right?
The telling may be exaggerated, but it may also just be true: "Patsy was simple, yet complex; gentle, yet volatile; smooth, yet rough; sweet, yet bittersweet; shy, yet outspoken," wrote biographer Ellis Nassour. "She was the first Nashville female superstar" (xvi).
"Patsy had magnetism but she also had a pair of balls," said friend and collaborator Faron Young (Nassour 174). "Her heart was bigger than she was."
It was close personal friend Dottie West who probably summed it up best: "She wasn't just good. Patsy was sensational."