by Nat Frothingham-
Stage name: Patsy Cline
Birth name: Virginia Patterson Hensley
Born: September 8, 1932, in Winchester, Virginia.
Died: March 5, 1963, Camden, Tennessee.
More than 50 years after country and western singer Patsy Cline — then 30 years of age — died in a plane crash in a remote wooded area of Camden, Tennessee, her iconic life continues to be celebrated — also revered — in books, movies and on stage.
Cline is the subject of the upcoming Lost Nation Theater production “Always…Patsy Cline” — a show that will run (Thursdays through Sundays) from June 4 through June 21 at the City Hall Arts Center in downtown Montpelier.
In a recent phone call with The Bridge, Lost Nation’s producing Artistic Director Kathleen Kennan who will play Patsy Cline in the production spoke with deep admiration about Cline as a woman and a performer who has inspired a wide range of women artists.
Cline was born on the poor side of the tracks in Winchester, Virginia. And though you could honestly say of her that “she came from nothing” she had the spirit and defiance to break through the barriers or as Kennan said, “In some ways Patsy was aggressive, or you might say determined. She knew what she wanted to do and she had the confidence to go for it.”
But Cline had something else as well. “This incredible voice” was how Keenan described it. “She had so much soul and emotion, a storytelling gift. She had perfect pitch. Her phrasing is unique. She really gets to the heart of the matter. Her voice is bigger than any genre.”
These are just a few of the many obstacles that she overcame in an all-too-brief career — tragically cut short by her untimely death.
When her first husband, a marriage traditionalist, discouraged her from pursuing a singing career because he wanted her to be at home she decided this wasn’t something she could live with and divorced him and left the marriage.
When Cline was trying to break into singing and show business, the show business world was hostile to women artists with its absurd prohibitions. She was one of the first women to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
When she was refused billing or as Keenan said — “Only the guy’s name would be up there” — she pressed her case for star recognition and was the first woman to get billing at a concert with Johnny Cash.
She was the first woman country and western singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. She was the first woman to have her own show in Las Vegas — four shows a day, seven days a week.
Not everyone who struggles up into stardom cares a hoot about other performers who are coming along after them and facing their own hard times. Cline was not like that. “She really went out of her way to help other women get a leg up when she got a leg up,” said Keenan who mentioned such standout performers as Loretta Lynn and Dottie West who got help from Patsy Cline.
A touching dimension of the Patsy Cline show involves a chance encounter that Cline had with one of her music fans, Louise Seeger. Seeger arrived early one night for a Patsy Cline show in the Esquire Ballroom in Houston, Texas. The two women got talking and found themselves drawn to each other. Cline had taken a taxi to the Esquire Ballroom before the show. But the taxis stopped running late at night and Louise invited Patsy to her house for bacon and eggs. She ended up staying overnight. And the chance encounter of that night developed into a warm friendship and an exchange of letters between the two women that lasted up until the time of Cline’s sudden death.
As she talked about her upcoming role in “Always…Patsy Cline,” Keenan sounded revved up. Last summer, Keenan appeared in an early 1950’s jazz and blues review called “Blues in the Night” and she had a couple of gutsy, brassy numbers to sing. After the show, someone in the audience came up to her and said, “I knew you could sing. But I didn’t know you can sing.”
Keenan is looking forward to the singing challenge in “Always…Patsy Cline” in which she will sing 27 songs. Said Keenan, “Patsy does a lot of growling and crooning. She can growl, she can croon, she can belt, she can yodel. She’s got all the equipment to entertain.”
But Keenan will not be alone out there on stage without back-up. In the role of Louise Seeger is actor Maura O’Brien. Tim Tavcar is directing and playing keyboard. Music Director Mark Hanson will lead the music from the piano with percussionist Dov Schiller and steel pedal guitarist and fiddler George Seymour.
When asked if she liked Patsy — the woman she will be bringing to life on stage, Keenan said, “I like Patsy, absolutely. We’re all flawed human beings and she’s definitely no exception to that.” Then Keenan cited Patsy Cline’s determination, compassion, her ability to fall inside of a song and put that out to an audience.”
Yes, Patsy Cline identified herself as a country artist. “But her voice and material defied genre. That’s why she was the first major crossover artist — rock and roll, country, pop. It’s very inspiring.”
Editor’s Note: Late-breaking news: As this issue of The Bridge goes to press, we have learned that the (new) Myles Court Barbershop at 25 East Elm St. in Montpelier is donating proceeds from its first week in business to Lost Nation Theater. (The pledge week began on Monday, June 1 and the LNT pledge period will end at the close of the business day on Friday, June 5.)
Air Accident Leads to Patsy Cline’s Sudden Death
On March 3, 1963, country and western singer Patsy Cline and a group other country and western singers and musicians gave three back-to-back shows at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas, and these shows were to benefit the family survivors of disk jockey “Cactus” Call who had died the month before in an automobile accident.
Cline herself had barely escaped with her life two years earlier in a June 1961 head-on collision. Her brother was driving at the time when another car in the oncoming lane pulled out to pass. When the two cars met head-on at the point of impact, Cline hit the windshield and nearly died from blood loss. She was on crutches for a while. Her face was scarred. And after the June 1961 accident she suffered from continuous headaches. But she recovered.
But back to the March 3 concerts in Kansas City. After the concerts, Cline was exhausted. She was ill from the flu. And she wanted desperately to get back to her husband and two children in Nashville.
Cline had been invited by singer Dottie West and her husband, Bill West, to drive back to Nashville — a 16-hour road trip. But there was also the option of flying back to Nashville with a small group of Grand Ole Opry performers in a plane piloted by her manager, Randy Hughes. When Bill West expressed concern about a flight to Nashville, Cline replied, “Don’t worry about me, Hoss. When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.”
On March 4, the day after the benefit concerts, the Fairfax Airport in Kansas City was hemmed in by fog and the plane belonging to Randy Hughes couldn’t take off. But the weather improved somewhat on March 5 and though Hughes was not trained in instrument flying he was ready to attempt the flight to Nashville with a party that included Cline and musicians Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.
After leaving Kansas City, the plane made two stops, one stop in Missouri for refueling and a second stop at about 5 p.m. at the Dyersburg Municipal Airport in Dyersburg, Tennessee. At Dyersburg, the airport manager suggested to Randy Hughes that he and his party stay the night in Dyersburg and start out again in the morning because of high winds and bad weather. But Hughes was ready to press on. The plane never reached its destination. It came down and crashed into a wooded area near the town of Camden, Tennessee about 90 miles west of Nashville. There were no survivors.