05 September 2004
Patsy Cline would have turned 72 on September 8, if she had lived. By any measure, Cline is one of country music's all-time greats. She's been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grammy Awards Recording Hall of Fame, and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. There's even a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. But Patsy's hometown of Winchester, Virginia has been slow to salute her. Leda Hartman explains why.
Patsy Cline died in a plane crash in 1963. She was just 30 and just starting to make it big. Since her death, hundreds of thousands of her fans have come to Winchester, looking for the drug store where she made malts, or the radio station where she sang on Saturday mornings. But Patsy's pilgrims are out of luck if they expect someone to actually show them her old haunts.
There's no Patsy Cline Museum in Winchester, not even a guided tour. Why not?
Part of the answer lies in a rundown clapboard house on South Kent Street, the house where Cline lived, on the east side of town.
"The east side of Winchester was just everyday working class," said Jim Knicely, the Cline's neighbor. "The west side of Winchester was doctors, lawyers, notables, people who have always been here for years. One lived on one side of the town, and us working people lived on the other side."
But it wasn't just living in the wrong neighborhood that set Patsy Cline apart. She was a bit of a bad girl. In 1950s small-town America, ladies would sip tea and say, 'How do you do?' Cline would down a beer with the boys and say, "How the hell are ya?" Ladies weren't out alone after dark. Cline was ... often.
"In those days, you don't wear ruby red lipstick. You don't go out on the streets with your hair up in rollers. But Patsy did that," says resident Lorraine Myers.
Lorraine Myers was still in high school the first time she saw Patsy Cline sing. She remembers her big, beautiful laugh and her penchant for tight pants. "Nowadays, anything goes. But back then, it didn't," she adds.
Then there was the fact that Winchester, a city of 26,000, set in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, didn't think of itself as some rural southern town.
Cline's brother-in-law, Mel Dick, remembers that folks here listened to big band and swing in those post-war years. He says playing country music was considered 'low class.'
"Country music in itself could not be very much," says Mr. Dick. "But a woman who would sing in a joint like that, at night, with men backup - you know, everyone who played an instrument was a man, there were no women - [the feeling was,] 'this person couldn't possibly be as good as me.'"
The 'proper people' also fussed over the company Cline kept. She divorced her first husband, Gerald Cline, and had a tempestuous time with her second, Charlie Dick.
Winchester's leaders never invited Cline to join in the town's annual Apple Blossom Festival Parade. As late as 1961, people booed her when she got up to sing at the local drive-in. And even in 1986, 23 years after her death, the city council decided not to name a new road after her. But if the public snubs ever got her down, Cline never let on.
Where did she get such spine? Lorraine Myers took me up a gravel road, to the rural hamlet of Gore. It's just a short drive west of Winchester, in the mountains near West Virginia.
"This is it. The house stood right - it was right in there," she notes.
Ms. Myers showed me the spot where Cline's grandparents once lived. This place was the one stable thing in her life. Her own parents got married when her mother got pregnant at age 15. And the family moved 19 times before ending up in Winchester, where her father finally abandoned them.
Elsie Spade, Cline's cousin and close friend, says this was the closest thing she had to home.
"She would tell you she was a country girl," says Ms. Spade. "She made no bones about it. She wasn't ashamed of what she came from."
That's because of Tunnie Allanson, their grandmother. Ms. Spade said Tunnie taught her grandkids not to be "doormats", no matter what anyone else thought. "Grandma put it in our heads, that his opinion of you, and the words he says to you, is not you. You're what you see when you face the mirror. That came from Tunnie," she added.
By the time Patsy Cline left for Nashville, in 1960, she was on her way to success. Cline sang at the Grand Ol' Opry and Carnegie Hall. She had huge crossover hits such as "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy." Even so, Ms. Spade remembers, she never forgot where she came from.
"Wasn't anything for her to call, and you'd say, 'What's going on?' 'Oh, I just called to see if everybody's all right.' Or once in a while she'd say, 'I just needed to hear a voice from home.' No, she never lost touch with us," said Ms. Spade.
Tears soften the lines in Elsie Spade's face when she talks about her cousin. She still misses her.
Roughly 41 years after Cline's death, the attitude in Winchester is softening, too. Many of the old guard have passed on. And now the movers and shakers in town see not just a tourist bonanza, but also the contribution Patsy Cline made to American music. They're raising money to buy the house on South Kent Street. And there are now two roads in her name.