It’s still hard to fathom that Patsy Cline died when she was only 30 years old on a March day in 1963. Damn that bad weather and everything else that went wrong that day when her plane crashed an hour and a half from its intended destination of Nashville. Can you imagine how much more music we’d have gotten had she lived?
The same can be said for so many others who died too young in the 1960s and ’70s, including Otis Redding (26), Buddy Holly (22), Janis Joplin (27) and my beloved Judy Garland (47), to name a few.
Cline only got to release three albums before that terrible day, and four posthumous ones followed. The number of recorded Cline songs is a finite one; it hovers somewhere around 100. I haven’t listened to all of them, but I did let a few dozen flow through my headphones once I heard that local singer-songwriter Ronda Dale and her band are putting on a Cline show.
First off, is there a more breezy piano than that of Floyd Cramer on “Crazy?” I listened to the Willie Nelson-penned classic with fresh ears. It was as if I had never heard it before. The song is still magnificent because Cline puts just the right amount of emotion into it, making it all the more heartbreaking. “Crazy” could theoretically be wailed because the lyrics are devastating. The male backing vocals are like a gentle summer breeze, and the drums are feather-light. The song is perfect, and I have a very good feeling about what Dale is going to do with it.
I reached out to Dale via email to find out why she loves Patsy Cline so much and what we can expect from the show at Deertrees Theatre in Harrison. Her responses were so eloquent that I’m sharing them in a Q&A format because Dale does a much better job of telling her story than I could ever hope to do.
Q: When did you first discover Patsy Cline?
A: When I was a kid growing up in Virginia, we had Patsy Cline records around the house. We also had others like Willie Nelson, Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole and Loretta Lynn, who “lived up the road from where my daddy’s people are from, in Tennessee,” my mother said. I could go on — Elvis, Fats Domino, Tammy Wynette, Kitty Wells, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Bing Crosby and Kenny Rogers. We had all records, which Mama said she’d buy “prob’ly from down at the Woolworth’s, downtown.” I’m from Charlottesville, Virginia, which is about two hours south from Winchester, Virginia, Patsy’s hometown. (Mama) said she would hear songs she liked on the radio, then go look for the records. She said, “Y’all went to sleep listenin’ to all them songs. We’d put ’em on and just let ’em play.”
Q: What are some of the things you like about her music?
A: I love her warm, strong voice, the power I feel in it, the emotion she conveys. One of the quotes I read is someone asked her, “Patsy, how do you get that sound when you sing?” and she said, “Oh, I just sing like I’m hurtin’ inside.” It sounds real to me, genuine.
Q: What will the show be like?
A: Two sets of about 45 minutes each, about two-thirds Patsy repertoire, four of my original songs and one of Rob’s (Babson, guitarist), plus five or so other covers ranging from jazzy to bluesy to R&B to good ol’ country. Somewhere in there will be two duets with surprise special guests — you have to come out to the show to find out who! Some of Patsy’s most well-known and beloved songs are included in our show (“Crazy,” “I Fall To Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams”) and at least one you probably never heard, “Don’t Ever Leave Me Again,” which is one of only two songs she ever recorded – in my research so far – for which she has a co-writing credit.
Q: When and how did you come up with the idea to do the tribute show?
A: Over the years I’ve always had several of Patsy’s songs in my set and had always wanted to sing a handful of others. Her songs, generally speaking, are not that easy to cover. She’s quite a vocalist for one thing, and, as far as chords, many of the tunes are not simple 1-4-5s. It was a good challenge. I discovered I’d been playing “She’s Got You” wrong for years. I began to read up on her and found even more about her and her background to identify with beyond that we’re both from Virginia. She comes from relatively humble circumstances – working-class, not a lot of money floating around. She was strong-willed, liked to drink, used some salty language. She called everybody “Hoss.” One thing we don’t share is she was ambitious from early on, wanting to be a country music star. I also discovered I have a similar vocal range as Patsy. She’s a contralto – not that she circulated in those spheres where those terms were known – something else we have in common. She was untrained, didn’t study music, sang and also played some piano, all by ear. She was spending a lot of her time working, helping support her family. Her father had left when Patsy, the eldest of the three children, was 15, and she had dropped out of school to help earn money. That’s something she has in common with my own mother. And I am interested in her as a strong, independent female coming up in the music business in the mid-’50s through 1963, when she left this world. She paved the way for many women to come and, from what I’ve read, was always generous with the women coming after her, encouraging them and believing there was plenty of room at the top for all.
Q: What do you think Patsy would think of some of today’s music if she were still alive?
A: From all I’ve read, Patsy considered herself a country singer. More often than not, she didn’t much care for the songs she was given to record. About “Walkin’ After Midnight,” her first hugely successful recording, she said, “It’s just a little ol’ pop song.” Her first big break, on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” TV program, the show’s producers were the ones who made her switch to perform “Walkin'” and to wear a cocktail dress rather than the cowgirl outfits she had been performing in (she designed them and her mother sewed them). All that is to say that, left up to her, I’m not sure of what success she would have had. Much of her charting success was due to her crossover appeal. Would she have come to like pop songs? When she was finally able to choose what she would record, would she have picked only country songs, which she claimed were the only thing she really wanted to sing? Would she like today’s “country” music, most of which, to my ears – since around the mid-’80s – is a mix of commercial pop, watered-down rock and your standard rockin’ blues. Are any of those singers actually from the country? I think of Patsy Cline as a jazz singer. Maybe that’s because I’m fairly ignorant of what jazz really is, not having studied the history of music with any depth. But it’s how I think of Willie Nelson, too. Why? It’s their phrasing, their choice of melody notes, really more just a spirit of approach maybe. Again, that’s a realm I feel a connection to.
Q: What’s your favorite Patsy Cline song?
7:30 p.m. Friday, Deertrees Theatre, 156 Deertrees Road, Harrison, $22. brownpapertickets.com