PBS/THIRTEEN’s American Masters: Patsy Cline
By: Beau Jared
The legendary country and pop star of the late 50s and early 60s has finally gotten a quasi-good biography in the form of PBS/THIRTEEN’s American Masters: Patsy Cline, which premieres on March 4, to kick off Women’s History Month. It also marks the 43rd Anniversary of Cline’s death (March 5, in a plane crash and the 85th anniversary of Cline’s birth which will be September 8.
Cline was the rebellious, outspoken Virginia gal named Virginia Patterson Hensley until she let a band leader madly in love with her [he was merely one of her loves] change her name to the more palpable Patsy Hensley. Then, another change was in store when she met sorta-wealthy, mama’s boy Gerald Cline and, mistakenly, married him.
There’s lots to admire in this American Masters, but it’s mainly just a bunch of talking heads – and not the ones you might expect [Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Barbara Mandrell, whom are very much still with us and who had almost a sisterly relationship with Patsy.
Cline defined modern country music and was a pioneer of the Nashville Sound [actually, the pioneer was legendary country record producer, Owen Bradley, a former big band leader, who was the pioneer – he knew what Patsy was capable of and guided her away from yodeling to lush ballads that became her bread-and-butter. Though Cline was a fan of rock and pop, she only wanted to sing hillbilly.
Many who worked in the studio with her related Cline had no idea what her voice was capable of. A sleazy record label owner dusted off a song that had been turned down by several artists, but Bradley took it, rearranged it and created Cline’s first hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight.” It was not only a country hit, but also got into the upper reaches of the pop charts – making Cline the first female country solo artist to cross over from country into pop. Once there, lush ballads laced with strings [unheard of in country except as fiddles!], followed: “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “She’s Got You,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Leaving on Your Mind,” and “Back in Baby’s Arms.”
As fate would have it, just when the best of her life was beginning, it ended. Cline was peaking in stardom after overcoming industry gender biases in a male-dominated field, not to mention and her own personal hardships [she was about to sign final divorce papers], and, after a near fatal car crash, uncanny premonitions that she would die early. Cline, her manager and two Grand Ole Opry artists were killed in the crash of a four-seater plane. She had only just turned 30.
Bradley shaped Cline to use her singular talent and heart-wrenching emotional depth he co-created to break down barriers of gender, class and genre. Amazingly, she didn’t write any of her songs, but friends such as Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, and Willie Nelson knew her so well that the tunes they wrote actually captured what was going on in her tumultuous private life [a second marriage to a home-town hot shot, literally cut from the same cloth, but stardom stymied their marriage into one of and physical abuse].
It would be wonderful if this American Masters reached the heights that most have. It seldom even reaches half way. There are numerous old B&W film clips [but no one thought to locate several fine color ones from the famed Ozark Jubilee TV archives. The program is mostly sound bites, very few insightful, from Beverly D’Angelo, who did a fantastic impersonation of Cline in the Loretta Lynn bio-pic Coal Miner’s Daughter; country legend Wanda Jackson, who at least knew Cline, but not well; Reba McEntire, about the only one who tells it like it was; Bill Anderson, only briefly, and what a shame because he toured with Patsy and has great tales of their time on the road; artist Kacey Musgraves, Nelson, and LeAnn Rimes.
There are clips from archival video interviews with Bradley, Nelson, and second husband, Charlie Dick. There’s a glimpse of Cline/Dick’s daughter Julie, who was only four at the time of her mother’s death. Roseanne Cash narrates, but not that much. It’s a shame she wasn’t interviewed because her father Johnny Cash was a beloved friend of Cline’s and she toured on his shows.
You’ll hear Cline’s winning moment on CBS’s Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, which in fact was a bit of a scam, when she broke the applause meter with her rendition of “Walkin’ after Midnight,” a tune she abhorred because, as she put it, it made her feel like a “street walker.”
Most of the above was researched from the best-selling Patsy Cline biography Honky Tonk Angel (St. Martin’s Press; updated edition, Chicago Review Press), the very first and, to many, the still definitive one because author Ellis Nassour interviewed just about everyone who ever came in contact with Cline.
Patsy Cline boldly — brazenly, according to a couple of jealous “Opry gals” interviewed for Nassour’s book, bucked female conventions of the 1950s with her wildly-creative fashion sense [most of her costumes were designed and crafted by her mother], and, even while helping others achieve success, to reach the top of her game. And just when the best of it began, it ended.
Her many posthumous honors include being the first solo female performer to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and a U.S. postage stamp.
American Masters: Patsy Cline is produced by Emmy-nominated director/producer Barbara J. Hall (Song by Song, Titanic: Band of Courage). Michael Kantor is American Masters series executive producer. For a preview of the program, go to pbs.org/americanmasters. For more on Patsy Cline, visit www.PatsyClineHTA.com.