Best known for her bold, rich and unparalleled emotionally expressive voice, Patsy Cline is one of the most inspirational, influential and impactful female vocalists of the 20th century. As a country music industry pioneer, Cline helped to blaze a trail for women to become headline performers in the genre. As a pillar of talent, Cline often encouraged and helped to support a number of female artists in country music, including Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Brenda Lee and Dottie West. Cline also befriended her male counterparts, including Roger Miller, Faron Young, Harlan Howard and Carl Perkins – possessing the rare ability to be “one of the boys.” Cline could belly-up to the bar and tell a raunchier joke than any man. Her moxie and spunky attitude garnered the respect of the “good ole’ boy” Nashville network and allowed her to take charge of her own career in a way that other women at the time simply couldn’t do. Cline never backed down when it came to the business – “No dough, no show” was often her mantra and according to friend and fellow perfomer West, “It was common knowledge around town that you didn’t mess with ‘The Cline!’”
Born Virginia Patterson Hensley, in Winchester, Virginia, on September 8, 1932, Cline’s first radio performance was on WINC-AM, in 1947, and was so well received that she began to make appearances in night clubs wearing fringed “western-style” outfits made by her mother and based on her own designs. In 1955, Bill Peer, Cline’s second manager, dubbed her “Patsy Cline” – a combination of her middle name and her mother’s maiden name. Peer also signed Cline to a short-lived contract with Four Star Records and her first record was “A Church, A Courtroom and Then Good-Bye.” The song didn’t garner much attention, but it led to appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. Later in 1955, while searching for material for her first album, Patsy Cline, she found “Walkin’ After Midnight.” She didn’t like the song initially because she felt it was “just a little old pop song,” but the label pushed her to record it. In late 1956, Cline auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s "Talent Scouts" and got the gig to sing on the CBS national television show that aired on January 21, 1957. She was slated to sing the song, “A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold),” but the producers insisted she sing, “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Godfrey’s staff also insisted that Cline appear in a fancy cocktail dress, rather than in one of her home-sewn cowgirl numbers. Soon after, the song was released as a single and peaked at Number 2 on Billboard’s country chart and Number 12 on the pop chart, making Cline one of the first country singers to have a crossover hit.
Along with Wanda Jackson, Cline shed her western cowgirl-stereotypical outfits, opting for designer, form-fitting gowns and cocktail dresses, additionally sporting high heels, perfume, lipstick, dangly earrings and even gold lamé pants. This image was considerably sexier than the conservative country music industry was used to, but Kline was able to match her personal style to her new “torchier” sound – which also enabled her to crossover into the pop market. Still, Cline was so respected in the industry that she was introduced as “the one, the only Patsy Cline,” rather than adding “pretty” or “miss” in front of her name, as other female performers were addressed at the time
Cline’s career continued to flourish with another hit, “I Fall to Pieces,” earning her first Number One song. In addition, the song went to Number 12 on the pop and Number 6 on the adult contemporary charts. In 1961, however, Cline was involved in a very serious car crash that nearly ended her career. Less than three months later, though, Cline went back on the road and re-established herself with the Willie Nelson–penned, “Crazy,” which became Cline’s biggest hit and, eventually, her signature song. For her chart achievements, Cline received many awards from Cashbox, Music Reporter and Billboard, which were the highest honors during her lifetime.
Everything that “The Cline” accomplished, she did in only five-and-a-half years. On March 3, 1963, Cline performed a benefit concert at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial hall in Kansas City, Kansas. The bill also included West, George Jones, Billy Walker, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Cline, though ill with the flu, gave a stellar performance. She was unable to fly out the following day to her next concert due to foggy weather conditions. West had offered Cline a ride in her car, but Cline decided to fly with Copas and Hawkins. Early on March 5, her plane took off and landed in Missouri to refuel, then made it to the Dyersburg Airport in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The Dyersburg airfield manager warned the crew that they would experience high winds and inclement weather, and offered to put up the entire group overnight, but the pilot insisted on traveling. Neither pilots on the flight were instrument-trained and flew the plane straight into driving rain. The plane crashed at approximately 6:20 pm on March 5, 1963, instantaneously killing all passengers.
Cline’s legacy is enormous. She set the bar for all other country singers who followed. In addition to the pioneering road she paved for other female artists, three of her songs became posthumous hits; there have been countless books about her, a musical and a 1983 motion picture, Sweet Dreams, starring Jessica Lange. With all of her gusto, confidence and talent, Cline will always be a star, in her own words, “well, I’m nearly up on the moon and didn’t need a rocket.”