Patsy's Musical Career
From Richie Unterberger, All Music
One of the greatest singers in the history of country
music, Patsy Cline also helped blaze a trail for female singers to assert
themselves as an integral part of the Nashville-dominated country music
industry. She was not alone in this regard; Kitty
Wells had become a star several years before Cline's big hits in the early
'60s. Brenda Lee, who
shared Cline's producer, did just as much to create a country-pop crossover
during the same era; Skeeter
Davis briefly enjoyed similar success. Cline has the most legendary aura of
any female country singer, however, perhaps due to an early death that cut her
off just after she had entered her prime.
Cline began recording in the mid-'50s, and although she recorded quite a bit of
material between 1955 and 1960 (17 singles in all), only one of them was a hit.
That song, "Walkin' After Midnight," was both a classic and a Top 20
pop smash. Those who are accustomed to Cline's famous early-'60s hits are in for
a bit of a shock when surveying her 1950s sessions (which have been reissued on
several Rhino compilations). At times she sang flat-out rockabilly; she also
tried some churchy tear-weepers. She couldn't follow up "Walkin' After
Midnight," however, in part because of an exploitative deal that limited
her to songs from one publishing company.
Circumstances were not wholly to blame for Cline's commercial failures. She
would have never made it as a rockabilly singer, lacking the conviction of Wanda
Jackson or the spunk of Brenda
Lee. In fact, in comparison with her best work, she sounds rather stiff and
ill-at-ease on most of her early singles. Things took a radical turn for the
better on all fronts in 1960, when her initial contract expired. With the help
of producer Owen Bradley
(who had worked on her sessions all along), Cline began selecting material that
was both more suitable and of a higher quality than her previous outings.
"I Fall to Pieces," cut at the very first session where Cline was at
liberty to record what she wanted, was the turning point in her career. Reaching
number one in the country charts and number 12 pop, it was the first of several
country-pop crossovers she was to enjoy over the next couple of years. More
important, it set a prototype for commercial Nashville country at its best. Owen
Bradley crafted lush orchestral arrangements, with weeping strings and
backup vocals by the
Jordanaires, that owed more to pop (in the best sense) than country.
The country elements were provided by the cream of Nashville's session
musicians, including guitarist Hank
Garland, pianist Floyd
Cramer, and drummer Buddy
Harmon. Patsy's voice sounded richer, more confident, and more mature, with
ageless wise and vulnerable qualities that have enabled her records to maintain
their appeal with subsequent generations. When k.d.
lang recorded her 1988 album Shadowland
with Owen Bradley, it was
this phase of Cline's career that she was specifically attempting to emulate.
It's arguable that too much has been made of Cline's crossover appeal to the pop
market. Brenda Lee, whose
records were graced with similar Bradley productions, was actually more
successful in this area (although her records were likely targeted towards a
younger audience). Cline's appeal was undeniably more adult, but she was always
more successful with country listeners. Her final four Top Ten country singles,
in fact, didn't make the pop Top 40.
Despite a severe auto accident in 1961, Cline remained hot through 1961 and
1962, with "Crazy" and "She's Got You" both becoming big
country and pop hits. Much of her achingly romantic material was supplied by
fresh talent like Hank
Cochran, Harlan Howard,
and Willie Nelson (who
penned "Crazy"). Although her commercial momentum had faded slightly,
she was still at the top of her game when she died in a plane crash in March of
1963, at the age of 30. She was only a big star for a couple of years, but her
influence was and remains huge. 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. For those who
could do without some of more elaborate arrangements of her later years, many of
her relatively unadorned appearances on radio broadcasts have been thankfully
preserved and issued.
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