The Godfather: Peter Corris on Patsy Cline
Recently I watched the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter, a biopic about country singer Loretta Lynn. I enjoyed the film, thinking Sissy Spacek deserved her Oscar, and admiring the sprightly performance of Tommy Lee Jones as the singer’s husband and the solid work of the great Levon Helm, founding member of the rock group the Band, in a supporting role.
According to the film, Patsy Cline acted as a mentor to Loretta Lynn, who went on to be known as ‘the first lady of country music’. After seeing the biopic I thought I’d like to hear some country music and, not having anything by Loretta Lynn, I played a Patsy Cline ‘best-of’ album.
I was reminded of an embarrassing moment in my writing career. In one Cliff Hardy novel (I’ve long forgotten which) I had the detective playing a Patsy Cline CD (or it may have been a cassette). Ignorantly, I spelled the surname Kline and no editor picked up the mistake. In a review, crime-writing and music expert and entrepreneur Stuart Coupe took me to task for the error and I made sure, a few books later, to get it right.
Now I listened to my CD with great admiration and enjoyment. But the accompaniment was all piano and violin, with not a guitar, banjo or fiddle to be heard. The lyrics said nothing about Mom, Pop, home, honky-tonks, guns or prison. From memory, God got only one mention. I thought I’d had an insight – that Patsy Cline wasn’t a country singer at all but a crooner/pop singer.
A second embarrassment. A little reading told me that it was fully acknowledged that she was a crossover country/pop performer.
Apparently a couple of her early records had honky-tonk and rockabilly flavours but these are not featured on compilation albums of her work. ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’, first sung on the Arthur Godfrey television program, triggered her career. It was rush-released (she was notable for needing only one take to record a song – the exception being Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’, which needed considerable reworking) and was her first hit. Nelson said that Patsy Cline’s version of ‘Crazy’ was his own favourite among his songs, and it became her signature tune.
She was in demand for radio, television and concert appearances from then on. In mid-career she switched from fringed cowgirl outfits to elegant gowns, cocktail dresses, glittering jewellery, spike heels and gold lame pants, pointing the way for Dolly Parton. Her records sold in the millions and rose high in the country and pop charts.
That success is not surprising. Her powerful voice had a great range and her technique of the pause in the middle of a word or a line, simulating emotion, was unsurpassed. Above all she exhibited exquisite timing, equalled, in my opinion, only by Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles.
She was a country girl, raised in a small town in Virginia. Thousands attended her burial service back there. Loretta Lynn and another friend paid for a bell tower to be erected in the cemetery; it plays hymns daily at 6PM – the time of her death as recorded by the wristwatch recovered at the site of the plane crash that killed her, at the age of 30, in 1963. You could not write a better script. I just wish I’d spelled her name correctly the first time I wrote it.