Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Brief candles: Patsy Cline (1932-1963)

Okay, I’ll admit it straight away: I’ve never been a fan of country music. Something about its lonely, twangy sound world that bespeaks of sadness and existential despair just doesn’t work for me. However – there are a few exceptions: Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves. And of course Patsy Cline.

I just saw the documentary Patsy Cline on PBS, part of the American Masters series, thus the inspiration for this post. The program was exceptional: information-rich, photo-laden, and with generous snippets of her golden singing. With her film star looks, unaffected vocal style, easy charisma, and confident stage presence, Patsy seemed made for television, and all this comes through in the many well chosen clips from the medium’s early years.

It’s tempting to invoke the cliché that Patsy Cline was a superstar before we had superstars, but as the program shows, Patsy was a star in 1963 at the time of her death, but only became a mega superstar afterward, and gradually over time.

Though there are better-known tunes that have come to be associated with her – “Crazy,” “Sweet Dreams” – my favorite Patsy Cline performance is her rendition of “You Made Me Love You,” a tune famously sung by Al Jolson and Judy Garland, among others. But it’s Patsy’s version that resonates the most with me.

Anyhow it occurs to me that all the above-mentioned artists, Patsy included, had a style that was somewhere between pop and country, not really hardcore country and not really straight-on popular - is that what they call fusion? Crossover? It also seems that all enduring popular singers, country and otherwise (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Patsy), maybe even classical too, regardless of the quality or technical limitations of the voice, projected the sense of talking the lyrics as much as singing them. Thus an instant emotional connection with the listener.

As the PBS program reveals, it wasn’t just her singing that made Patsy special. She was a trailblazer in the tough world that’s the country music business. We might well say: Patsy got there first. She paved the way for so many female country singers to appear at the Grand Ole Opry, and as much as any individual is responsible for country music appealing to a much wider audience in the decades after her passing.

Part of Patsy’s appeal today may be extra-musical, a sentimental, unconscious association with a simpler, slower, and happier, time in our history, and her honest, uncomplicated style reflects this in a very basic way.  Whatever the reasons, Patsy’s stature continues to grow, and the warm light of her artistry shines, glowing ever brighter over time as more of us become familiar with her and her music. Patsy Cline was truly a great artist and she left us much too soon.

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