Patsy Cline’s biggest hits were about heartbreak, lost love and loneliness.
You can feel the pain coming through that magnificent contralto voice on songs like “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams” and “She’s Got You.”
Once she was asked to explain the emotion in her songs and she replied, “I just sing like I hurt inside.” At recording sessions, she would become so emotionally involved that she would break down in tears.
That hurt inside was real and it spoke to people through her music.
Hear it for yourself when Always … Patsy Cline plays the Jaeb Theater Nov. 5-22 and Dec. 3-6. More than a tribute to the legendary country singer, who died tragically at age 30 in a plane crash, this Straz Center production is based on a true story about Cline’s friendship with a fan who befriended the star in a Texas honky-tonk.
Born in 1932, Virginia Patterson Hensley grew up tough and poor in the rural South with the nickname “Ginny.” She did not become Patsy Cline until years later.
Her father, often unemployed, kept the family on the move and often fought with her mother. He left the family when “Ginny” was 15. Cline later revealed that he had sexually abused her.
She dropped out of school in the ninth grade and worked at odd jobs. As a teen she entered talent shows and performed in dive joints up into her early 20s. She idolized 1930s country singer Patsy Montana who dressed as a cowgirl and carried a six-shooter.
She tried numerous styles: gospel, rockabilly, jazz, blues, and country. She changed her name to Patsy Cline after her first marriage in 1953 to a short, stocky contractor named Gerald Cline, seven years her senior.
That marriage ended in 1957, the same year her star began to rise thanks to a national televised performance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a 1950s version of America’s Got Talent.
She had been performing for 10 years and was still an unknown. But her performance of “Walkin’ After Midnight” blew the country away.
She couldn’t read music, but she had perfect pitch and a rich, expressive voice that brought the bouncy, bluesy song to life. Her first national hit crossed over from the country to the pop charts.
Her cowgirl garb gave way to cocktail dresses as she became part of the then-new “Nashville Sound” in which country twang, steel guitars and fiddles were replaced by string sections, background vocals and lead singers with smooth voices.
She was 24 and, on her way, to fame and fortune. But her life was cut short when she died in 1963 at age 30, killed in the crash of a private plane following a benefit concert.
Who knows what Cline could have achieved if she had lived longer?
Even so, she left a legacy: Willie Nelson, who wrote one of her signature hits, “Crazy,” said her version was the best. There were others hits like “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” “Heartaches,” “So Wrong,” “Leavin’ on Your Mind,” and “Always.”
Whenever she covered a song, such as Hank William’s “Lovesick Blues,” she made her own with her inflections and emotional interpretation.
She was first female solo artist to headline her own show, the first to be billed above fellow male performers, the first female country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall, first to play Las Vegas, and the first female singer to be inducted (posthumously) into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Always outspoken, Cline was a hard-drinking, strong-willed person who did not care for rules. She was the first woman to buck the gender rules at the Grand Ole Opry by performing in a pants suit. But she had a soft heart when it came to helping other female country singers such as Dottie West and Loretta Lynn.
A remarkable woman with a remarkable voice, she is remembered in “Always…Patsy Cline,” which premiered in 1988 and includes 27 of her memorable songs. It is based on an encounter Cline had with a fan, Louise Seger, in Houston in 1961. Written by Ted Swindley, the musical depicts how the women bonded over shared experiences and her music.
Walt Belcher, longtime Tampa Tribune entertainment reporter and Patsy Cline fanatic, wrote this for Caught In The Act.