In the late 1990s, the Country Music Hall of Fame published an authoritative encyclopedia that staked out Patsy Cline as "the most popular female country singer in recording history." Outdated, you say?
Hardly. Since that claim was published, it's true, Taylor Swift and Shania Twain have surpassed Cline's overall record sales. But if you want to make the case that they've eclipsed her in every way, or that her impact has diminished in the 50 years since Cline perished in a March 5, 1963 plane crash, prepare to have music historians call you... crazy.
One indicator that she's gotten bigger even in death than in life: Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits is still the only album by a solo artist ever to sell 10 million copies in America entirely posthumously. (For the record, the Doors also had a best-of sell 10 million after Jim Morrison's death, and while posthumous releases by 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. were certified diamond, as double-albums they only had to sell 5 million each to reach that status.)
Another indicator: "Crazy," her 1961 pop-country crossover smash, is often referred to as the biggest jukebox hit of all time. While it's difficult to verify that claim without actually collecting quarters from bartenders, is it possible to imagine any jukebox worth its salt not including this single? Or to think of any other 50-year-old song that would also be a sure-inclusion?
The only other contenders for Cline's all-time crown would be Kitty Wells, who was known as the Queen of Country when Patsy arrived on the scene in the late '50s, or Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, whose vivid personalities filled the void Cline left from the late '60s on up through (thank God) the present day. But not even these world-class greats can claim a singular hit quite as indelible in the public imagination as "Walking After Midnight," the lonesomest pre-dawn anthem ever. And Cline was only 30 when her recording canon came to a halt.
The remarkable thing is that this popularity persists without any major impetus or push, and with virtually no existing color footage to freshen up her image on YouTube. The last big boost her legend got was the 1985 release of Sweet Dreams, a biopic that had Jessica Lange lip-synching her songs. Before the film came out, her 1967 Greatest Hits album hadn't even gone gold, much less 10-times platinum. But that rarely-revived movie can't account for Cline continuing to sell millions of records in the '90s, '00s, and '10s.
A one-woman musical play, Always... Patsy Cline, has had huge success in regional productions. One version starring Mandy Barnett played at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium for over a year. It's due to hit Broadway this summer with American Idol season 9 finalist Crystal Bowersox assuming the role. But this show is more a symptom of Cline's popularity than a cause.
Instead of the faded monochrome imagery being a detriment, maybe it's her very black-and-whiteness that keeps her alive in our minds... combined with the purity and grandeur of her flawless contralto, of course. After she gave up the gingham for cocktail dresses in the later part of her career as a crossover artist, she became less the cheerful hillbilly starlet and more the romantically star-crossed noir heroine, singing the kind of balladry where only the lonely could know how she felt that night. And we do like our country legends lonesome—as the equally enduring appeal of Hank Williams will attest.
In real life, no matter how hard a movie like Sweet Dreams might try to push the tragic angle, Cline was no pushover or wallflower, and she was even thought of as one of the boys when it came to carousing after the Grand Ole Opry across the alley at Tootsie's. Listening only to the "countrypolitan" ballads she recorded with producer Owen Bradley in the early '60s—classic as they are—risks ignoring the terrific honky-tonk and even rockabilly sides she cut in her lean years in the late '50s. (If you want to hear how phenomenal she was as more of a rockin' hillbilly vocalist, look for Stop, Look and Listen, a wonderful Bear Family CD that rounds up her rougher side.)
But it was Bradley who made her into a mainstream star, by ditching the banjo for piano, trading the fiddle for orchestration, and adding Elvis's Jordainaires as backing vocalists. Suddenly she was on the pop and easy listening charts as well as finally rocketing to the top in country as well. Cline has mixed feelings about adopting "the Nashville Sound" (the term given to the slicker stylings that came into vogue in the early '60s), having reservations about giving up traditional country instrumentation while realizing that she was being given much stronger material to break out with.
Her crossover success was a little less self-realized and slightly more reluctantly arrived at than, say, Dolly's, Shania's, or Taylor's. But she provided the prototype for all these country queens to come, as a strong, feisty, independent figure who didn't think that glamming it up a little meant feminizing herself into a submissive creative death. For Cline, there would be no de-Cline as she shifted from rip-roarin' country gal to classy nightclub ingenue. As her lyrical persona grew more vulnerable, she only got stronger as a singer and, ultimately, icon.
Her widower, Charlie Dick, said recently that when the plane went down 50 years ago, Cline wasn't even the biggest star on board; Cowboy Copas was. That's generous, and arguable, but does serve a point. Family members and historians have sometimes rued how Copas and the other Opry star on board, Hawkshaw Hawkins, have been so lesser remembered when the crash is recounted. But it shouldn't besmirch their memory to acknowledge just how inordinately hers has grown in our sweet dreams. The others were great products of their era, while Cline's most enduring ballads belong to every era. Her voice might as well be coming to you direct from the afterlife as from Nashville's Quonset Hut studio a half-century ago.
The sales and attendance records set by Shania and Taylor are safe from Patsy's ghost, but when it comes to truly timeless appeal, they may still have some celestialism to live up.