Classic Music Review: Patsy Cline, The Definitive Collection

Patsy Cline was my kind of woman.

In the pre-feminist 50’s and early 60’s, when a woman’s career path was pretty much limited to the kitchen and the nursery, Patsy Cline forged a career through a combination of sheer talent and brazen assertiveness. She didn’t wait around for someone to discover her: she went to a local DJ and asked if she could sing on his show. Her first husband wanted her to stay home and raise a family—she said, “See ya, Hoss!” Even before she’d made the big time, she negotiated for creative control of her music, and while she made a few compromises along the way, she was always able to make her case. She didn’t wait for the Grand Ole Opry to call her—she called them and asked to join the cast. She absolutely refused to let concert promoters screw her or her fellow musicians out of their performing fees, a common occurrence at the time. “No dough, no show!” became kind of a motto for her. During her peak years, they stopped introducing her in traditional sexist fashion as “Pretty Miss Patsy Cline” but as “The One and Only.” Patsy simply didn’t fit the mold—she liked to hang out with the guys, have a few beers and tell dirty jokes. As her music morphed into something more sophisticated than country, she dumped her cowgirl get-up and performed in satin gowns or skin-tight gold lame pants accompanied by spiked heels.

Dottie West said of her, “It was common knowledge around town that you didn’t mess with ‘The Cline!'”

In contrast to the tough image she cultivated, she was terribly generous with her time and money. She’d spend hours after concerts chatting it up with fans, and became a mentor to many young women who were trying to break into the country field. When involved in a head-on collision that nearly killed her, she insisted that the EMT’s treat the others first. Also in contrast to her strong woman persona, most of her material consisted of torch songs: women holding out hope that the man would come back or at least stop screwing around. Whether that was empathy for the women in her fan base or capitalizing on her natural affinity with the style, it is a curious twist in the life story of a woman who didn’t take shit from anyone.

Sometimes her stubbornness got in the way of her potential. She resisted doing some of the songs that turned out to be her biggest hits because they wandered outside the parameters of country music. The timbre of her contralto voice contrasted mightily with the thin twang of most of the female country singers of the era and gave her a golden opportunity to extend her range into jazz and blues, but she only dipped a toe into those waters. Had she chosen to expand her repertoire, she might have prevented country music from getting stuck in a musical cul-de-sac by opening the field to new influences.

We’ll never know, as she died in a plane crash at the age of thirty.

The Definitive Collection is probably the best of many compilation albums summarizing her too-short career. What’s quite noticeable in all of her recordings is that the other musicians on the record are in deep background. The mixes and arrangements all focus on the star of the show. Given the strength of her personality, I doubt that any mix or arrangement could have contained her. Patsy Cline was a presence, and one of the greatest female vocalists in any genre of popular music.

“Walkin’ After Midnight”: Originally written for jazz-pop singer Kay Starr but rejected by her label, the song languished in nowheresville for a couple of years before one half of the songwriting team wound up working for the record company that had just signed a promising singer named Patsy Cline. Four Star Records wanted her to record “Walkin’ After Midnight,” but Patsy demurred. At this time Patsy had recorded several country and honky-tonk songs that had done next to nothing, but despite having no chips on her side of the table, she held her ground, refusing to do the song unless they allowed her to do another that she thought was more her style. They wisely decided not to throw her spunky little ass out on the street and agreed to her terms. Later she successfully auditioned for a shot on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in January 1957, planning to sing the song she favored. The producers preferred “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and this time Patsy had to fold. Good thing she did—her performance caused the applause-o-meter to hit its peak and “Walkin’ After Midnight” was released to general acclaim, going all the way to #2 on the charts.

Artists can be awfully stubborn, even to the point of self-destruction, but Patsy’s stubbornness here is curious. The song isn’t that big of a leap from the country tunes she was doing and it’s absolutely perfect for her rich, folksy voice. Her phrasing is dead-on perfect, her articulation exquisitely balanced between clarity and feel, and that little growl that leads into the belt-out in the last verse is one of those wonderful little touches that make all the difference in music. Her feel for the blue notes gives her honeyed voice a depth and texture that commands your attention and thrills you with delight. Patsy Cline is one of the few great singers with exceptional talent whose talent doesn’t create distance between her and the listener; while her vocal talents are awe-inspiring, she still comes across as one of us. You can fall in love with her music and never have to worry that she’s gonna get too big for her britches.

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“A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold)”: This is the song Patsy won the right to sing in her negotiations with Four Star over “Walkin’ After Midnight.” It’s not a bad song or a poor performance but it is somewhat contrived and lacks the groove and natural flow of  “Walkin’ After Midnight.” On this song, Patsy was trying to be a singer; on “Walkin’ After Midnight,” she could just relax and let her voice work its magic. Capiche?

“Lovesick Blues”: This remake of the Hank Williams yodeling classic is not one of Patsy’s shining moments. The arrangement is all wrong: the tempo is almost frenetic, the instrumentation is more beach party than hillbilly. Technically she does a nice job with the yodeling in terms of glides and pitch, but the song is moving so fast you don’t really have time to appreciate it. As an aficionado of the yodel, I believe that a yodel must be savored like fine wine, slowly and deliberately. To truly appreciate the craft, you have to allow the yodeler time to drawl multiple permutations of each vowel. Patsy’s yodels approximate the experience of guzzling or—(gag)—chugging down a bottle of Boone’s Farm rather than sipping the luxurious overtones of a fine vin noir from Cahors.

We can give Patsy a pass because at this point she was still with Four Star Records, a subsidiary of a subsidiary that failed to capitalize on the success of “Walkin’ After Midnight” and severely restricted her musical options. She dumped them for Decca as soon as she could, and though this track was released by Decca, “Lovesick Blues” was actually from her last recording session with Four Star. The transfer to the major label hooked her up with the best producer in Nashville, Owen Bradley, and from this point, her career would really take off.

“I Fall to Pieces”: Her first great torch song from Decca is a slightly up-tempo shuffle that became her first #1 hit in 1961. At first, Patsy asked Bradley if she could record the song, then when she discovered he wanted more of a pop sensibility and The Jordanaires as her backup vocalists, she fought against it with teeth bared. Patsy thought her talents were more suited to honky-tonk country tunes that allowed her to growl and yodel. After reducing the men in the studio to tears on the fourth take, she had an epiphany and realized that the song and the style were tailor-made for her. What’s wonderful about her vocal here is her restraint; she never forgets she’s playing the part of a woman falling to pieces over a breakup and avoids the temptation presented by the melodic pattern to overdo it. She sounds like a woman who has cried herself out rather than one who is about to unload (and ruin the song in the process).

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“True Love”: A Cole Porter number popularized in the movie High Society by the unlikely pair of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, this proved to be a great choice for Patsy’s talents. Several other artists of the day recorded this waltz, but I think it was more important for Patsy to do this song and flex her skills outside of the genre. Her version is warm nectar without a hint of sappiness; there’s almost a sacred feel to her interpretation, particularly when she hums the melody oh so sweetly. I love her interpretation simply for the opportunity to hear the beauty of her voice.

“San Antonio Rose”: Well, she liked to dress in cowgirl duds early in her career, so I guess she had to find something to go with the outfit. The signature song of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, I’m sure this made the people at the Grand Ole Opry very happy. What’s remarkable here is that Patsy could have turned this into more of a growler but instead delivers the song in the richer tones of her torch songs, giving us another chance to delight in her voice.

“Crazy”: Once again, Patsy’s first reaction to one of her most famous numbers was negative: she hated this Willie Nelson number with a passion. After Owen Bradley took what was originally a spoken word number and refashioned it into a melodic ballad, Patsy was willing to give it a go, but ran into a snag. A few months before, she had been involved in a serious car accident that put her in the hospital for two months and when she tried the song she couldn’t comfortably hit the high notes because she her broken ribs hadn’t fully healed. Once they gave her some time to recover, she nailed it in one take. This is a perfect song for Patsy Cline, a country song with a touch of jazz and a hint of blues with strong vertical melodic movement and a nice, slow tempo to allow Patsy to relax and let her voice ease into place. Her almost poetic enunciation of the “w” sounds on the bridge (worry, wondrin’, why, what) are entrancing, and I melt every time I hear that moaning “oh” between the bridge and the third verse. I wish I could have found a film of her performing “Crazy” at the Opry on crutches, but this will have to do:

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“Strange”: A curious little number with a Latin beat and arpeggiated guitar chords, Patsy seems entirely comfortable with her new persona, but the song is, well . . . a bit strange.

“She’s Got You”: This is one of the few times Patsy and Owen Bradley would agree from the get-go that a song was destined for the top of the charts. Hank Cochran wrote many hits for the country stars of the day and the story is he called Patsy and told her he’d written her next #1 hit. Patsy must have been feeling right neighborly that night and invited Hank to bring the song and a bottle of booze and play it for her and Dottie West. She recorded it at her next session and yes, it made it to number one with lighting speed.

The story is told from the dumped woman’s perspective as she looks at her ex’s picture and the “little things” she has, while expressing slightly-repressed bitterness towards the woman who stole her man:

I’ve got the records that we used to share
And they still sound the same as when you were here
The only thing different, the only thing new
I’ve got the records, she’s got you

Patsy begins in the lower part of her register, moving up rather quickly to mid-range and then back to the lower notes for the clincher lines. Patsy develops her excellent sense of phrasing even further on this song, going almost conversational in the bridge in the line, “I’ve got your memory . . .  or . . . has it got me?” We’re hearing Patsy at her peak now, comfortable in her own skin and in full command of her material.

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“Heartaches”: Although technically still a lost-love number, this old standard doesn’t really fit the category of torch song because of its quicker tempo and snappier feel. The song itself dates back to the 1930’s and was more popular because of the whistling in the Ted Weems number than the words. Around the time Patsy recorded it, The Marcels had resurrected it just like they’d resurrected “Blue Moon.” Even though the words are all about heartaches, Patsy sounds almost gleeful by the end of the number, making you wish she would have added some more cheerful songs to her repertoire . . . until you hear the cheerful song in this collection.

“Half as Much”: Hank Williams popularized this ditty about an imbalanced relationship, and it was perfect for Patsy and the album Sentimentally Yours, primarily a set of interpretations of standards designed to solidify her status in the pop market. Opening with a harmonica in the campfire-on-the-prairie style, the song pretty much tracks Hank’s version except for one big difference: the singer. Hank’s version is more plaintive and emotional; Patsy’s is almost detached in comparison. What gives Patsy’s version an edge is a combination of her ability to get more out of the melody and her one-of-a-kind phrasing skills. Hank’s version is more earthy; Patsy’s more sophisticated. While you wind up feeling sorry for Hank, Patsy’s rendition expresses more regret than failure. Both versions are classics and should be a part of every Music Appreciation 101 curriculum, in the section on “song interpretation.”

“When I Get Through with You”: Girls named Sue must have left the 60’s with horrible self-esteem problems. Dion more than implied that Sue was a slut; Johnny Cash poked fun at a primitive gender-bender named Sue. Here Sue is the evil competition for a young stud’s attention. This is one song where I think Owen Bradley’s drive to crossover into pop went too far; the song is more Lesley Gore than Patsy Cline. Françoise Hardy gave the song a French twist during her “ye-ye” years with “Quel mal y a-t-il à ça?” which literally translates, “What Harm Is There in That?” Edge to Mme. Hardy.

“Imagine That”: Ah, back to the twangy guitars, tinkly pianos and deep strings of the early 60’s Nashville Sound. Patsy goes further down the conversational phrasing route on this track, giving her performance more of a “you are there” feeling, especially when she introduces the natural stuttering we all do when the words want to come out before our brains have wired the instructions to our vocal apparatus. The laugh at the end of the song is both sincere and not a little jarring, but it gives you some idea of where Patsy might have taken her music had she lived longer . . . more in the direction of Peggy Lee than Kitty Wells.

“So Wrong”: Here the torch is passed to the object of the song and Patsy is filled with remorse and regret that she dumped him. Full of conversational touches and glorious glides, the crescendo is a masterpiece of rising emotion ending in the always hesitant admission of fault. Although written by Mel Tillis, Carl Perkins and Danny Dill, the arrangement is clearly Manhattan, providing another hint of Patsy’s potential.

“Why Can’t He Be You”: Hank Cochran gives Patsy the chance to explore the concept of settling for the nice guy who loves you while holding out for the one who twiddles your diddle but doesn’t respond to your feminine wiles. I love the way Patsy takes a good long pause on the line “He’s not the one who dominates . . . my mind and soul,” implying that the those stiletto heels she had might have been meant for activities that took place off-stage. She then admits that “his kisses leave me cold,” further affirming that the delights of sexual pleasure are much more compelling than flowers and candy. My take is that her current flame may be a nice guy but there ain’t no way a nice guy is going to earn the devotion of a woman as strong as Patsy Cline. Biased personal interpretation aside, this is one of my favorites on the album.

“Leavin’ on Your Mind“: The arrangements rarely differ on Patsy’s torch songs and you know what? It doesn’t fucking matter. You’re there for the voice, not the stuff going on in the background. Here Patsy’s dealing with a guy who’s keeping another woman on the side, so she confronts him about it. When Patsy sings, “hurt me now, get it over,” her voice sounds tired of the game, but she’s obviously still playing it because she is tossing a little guilt his way. She finally lets it go in the last line, and her power and sense of injustice is astonishing. Patsy Cline could capture emotions as well as any singer who ever lived, and she nails the complex and contradictory feelings that go with a relationship where jealousy and desire are in perpetual conflict. Sadly, this would be the last single released before she died.

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“When You Need a Laugh”: Hank Cochran must have been Patsy’s soul mate, because the songs he wrote for her are eerily perfect. Here Patsy takes it a step further, shifting to bitter passive-aggressiveness in response to becoming something of a joke to the man in question. The humiliation is obviously strongly felt, and when she sings, “So even if the laugh’s on me, I don’t mind at all,” you know she’s lying through her teeth. This song has not received the attention it deserves, as I think it’s one Patsy Cline’s smoothest and strongest vocals, and her interpretation incorporates deep insight into the psychology of women with abysmal self-esteem. I find “When You Need to Laugh” one of the most moving songs in her catalog.

“Back in Baby’s Arms”: If you want to know why they kept feeding Patsy torch songs, this happy little number will explain it all. The over-the-top arrangement doesn’t work and Patsy sounds almost superficial in contrast to her work on “When You Need a Laugh.” I think Patsy would have benefitted from some more upbeat songs in her catalog, but this is not what I had in mind.

“Faded Love”: This old western tune is another interpretation of a Wills number, and for the first time on this record, I think Patsy goes over the top with her performance. The song simply can’t bear that much drama; it’s a fucking cowboy song, for chrissakes!

“Always”: Now we reach back into the Irving Berlin catalog for a song covered by everyone from Guy Lombardo to Phil Collins. I haven’t heard all the interpretations, but I’m sure that Patsy’s interpretation would rank near the top. Her vocal is both touching and sensitive; her timbre is smooth, rich and sophisticated. This is more of a pure and positive love song, and lo and behold, she excels at it. “Always” demonstrates that she could have easily crossed over into jazz standards if she had lived longer and chosen to do so.

“He Called Me Baby”: Released posthumously, this is one of Patsy’s more daring songs, as the subject deals with a woman who allowed herself to succumb to seduction and now finds herself abandoned and alone. “He called me baby, baby, baby all night long” is the refrain, modified at the end of the verses to a phrase that she now only hears in her dreams. Patsy’s performance is exceptional, especially when she allows herself to mock the man’s voice and tone as he fills her ears with “baby, baby, baby.” You can hear the emotional struggle so clearly—the pathetic clinging to the belief that he really meant all those sweet-nothings. If nothing else, the last two tracks on this collection indicate that Patsy Cline was hitting on all cylinders when tragedy struck.

“Sweet Dreams (Of You)”: The perfect close to a near-perfect album, “Sweet Dreams” is as much a signature song for her as “Walkin’ After Midnight” or “I Fall to Pieces.” Patsy rarely sung with more sustained power; the vacillation between love and hate in the text is dramatically expressed in her voice, as is the sense of exhaustion from the struggle that burns in her heart. The only other version I’ve heard that comes close to matching the emotional intensity of Patsy’s interpretation is Roy Buchanan’s guitar masterpiece. While it’s tempting to believe that she let it all out in what she foresaw would be one of her last recordings, I’d rather listen to “Sweet Dreams” as another indication that Patsy Cline went out on top.

It’s unnerving for me to realize that I have already outlived Patsy Cline by two years. I look at my future and see all kinds of possibilities, in complete denial that one day my plane might go down or a chance meeting with a lunatic could result in my death or that I might wind up with a rare and incurable disease. I embrace that denial, because I firmly believe that you have to live life without regard to its inevitable end or you won’t live life at all. Patsy Cline lived life to its fullest and left behind a catalog that will enchant people for centuries, proving that you don’t have to live that long to make a difference in people’s lives if you give it your all.

Still, I really wish Patsy Cline had lived to a ripe old age. As an old lady, she would have been a hoot!

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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