March 5: The Deathday of Patsy Cline

Portrait by Kristy Cannon

In a world of condescending good ole boys, Patsy Cline refused to be anybody’s pretty little anything. Bold, forceful, and hellishly wild, she could go from cute to ugly in the flick of a cow’s tail. She assured the fellas around her, “I know how to whack below the belt.” She had to.

Growing up in the hardscrabble hills of Virginia, then kicking her way into the boys’ club at the Grand Ole Opry, there was no time for “pretty please.” Patsy came into the national spotlight at the dawn of the Women’s Lib movement, but she wouldn’t be caught dead burning bras. Her ambition propelled her far beyond domestic constraints, and besides, busting balls was more her style. She was throwing knees and elbows until her plane crashed in 1963.

Patsy grew up among the plain folk of the Shenandoah Valley, the real salt of the earth, or what a gentleman might call filthy white trash. Her mother Hilda met her husband-to-be at a Sunday school picnic when she was only thirteen years-old. He was forty. Hilda gave birth to Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932, outside of Winchester, VA.

Little “Ginny” (as Patsy was then known) was born to shine, but her star had to claw its way up instead of shooting across the heavens.  At age twelve Ginny was hacking up hens at the local poultry factory. At thirteen she fell ill with rheumatic fever, which momentarily stopped her heart and nearly killed her—but she claimed that the throat infection altered her vocal chords, giving her a “booming voice like Kate Smith’s.” She honed her pitch in the church choir, and by fourteen little Ginny was singing on the local radio station. She was also getting on with twenty-five year-old pianist, “Jumbo” Rinker. She quickly gained a reputation for getting around, but she wasn’t about to get tied down.

When she was fifteen, her ageing Daddy hit the bricks, leaving her and her young mother to take care of her brothers themselves. Little Ginny split her time between soda-jerking at the drug store and singing her heart out in honky tonks—even posing for a naughty black-and-white here and there—but no one besides local admirers seemed to notice.

Then in 1952 she met guitarist Bill Peer, who became her band-leader, her mentor, and one of her many lovers. Despite his happy marriage, Bill remained by her side through her first major performances, her first Music Row recordings, and her first record deal with Four Star. In fact, it was Bill who gave her the stage name “Patsy.” Unfortunately for Bill, it was the pudgy, yet persistent high-roller, Gerald Cline, who gave her the last name.

Gerald was eight years older, but a good deal richer than sweet Patsy. Unfortunately for Gerald, a twenty-two year-old Navy sailor was giving her the orgasms. And on show dates, so was Bill. Only one person was happy with this arrangement. Gerald wanted an apron in the kitchen, and Bill wanted a songbird on his lap. Patsy wanted to be a star, and when the heavens opened before her, she left Bill and Gerald on the ground.

After a smashing television performance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, Patsy was endeared to a national audience. Regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry soon followed. Nashville was a cowboy scene where women sang duets or back up, but Patsy knocked their hats in the creek. She became the first female country artist to headline her own shows, and after her death, was the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

It may have been a slow start, but once she got going Patsy Cline made hit records like a trailer park matriarch squirts out rug rats—just one after the other. Patsy preferred the more upbeat tunes, but her record-buying public clamored for sadness. She became the voice of heartbreak for a generation of jilted lovers. Though she generally didn’t write the lyrics, she got inside her songs in a way that bled sincerity. She would be so overcome with emotion that she often wept in the recording booth. Fellow performers remember tears streaming down her cheeks as she sang gospel tunes at the Ryman: “She was as moved as the audience.”

In 1956, Patsy performed “I’ve Loved and Lost Again” on Tex Ritter’s Western Ranch Party. This sappy little country song expresses sadness toward fickle hearts and decaying tradition, but it also heralds America’s immanent transition from domestic monogamy to the free-loving frenzy of the 60s:

To be true to one alone
don’t seem to matter anymore.
They’ll tell you you’re out of style
unless you’ve had three or four.

I’ve loved and lost again,
Oh, what a crazy world we’re living in.
True love has no chance to win…

She wears a cowgirl outfit—most likely made by her mother—with her hat cocked to cast a shadow over her eyes. A sly grin comes over her face each time she sings “unless you’ve had three or four.” For a woman like Patsy Cline, three or four is just a warm up. Before long, she would meet her next husband, and lose the Old West costume in favor of Manhattan furs and sequined gowns.

Though widely regarded as a country star, Patsy’s most popular songs saw her shed the chipper mountain yodel for a silky voice consumed with unhealthy obsession. Aside from crossover appeal in the 1960s pop charts, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “She’s Got You” also share a common persona: the weepy romantic who refuses to move on. Cast aside by her one true love, she stares at his pictures, slips his ring onto her finger, and stalks the streets at night—trapped by a memory. The jukeboxes must have floated on rivers of tears. Hearing the genuine anguish in these songs, you have to wonder what kind of dick could string Patsy along so skillfully.

Charlie Dick was a drinker, a brawler, and a notorious ladies’ man. After his father committed suicide, he took over responsibility for his family, working hard—but playing harder. It was 1956 when he stumbled into a Virginia honky tonk to see the Kountry Krackers perform. Suddenly, Patsy Cline took the stage, and Charlie was absolutely smitten. Having just left her smothering husband, Patsy was coy with him at first. But women just couldn’t say no to Charlie Dick.

For the first time in her life, Patsy was in love. “He’s a man, all man,” she bragged to friends, “bigger than life, and twice as hard!” They were married in 1957, and their daughter Julie was born the next year. After Charlie received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1959, the couple moved to Nashville, where Patsy signed with Decca Records and joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps most importantly, she met her new partner in crime—artist manager, guitar-picker, and amateur pilot, Randy Hughes. Soon she was pregnant with a baby boy—also named Randy—but that didn’t stop her relentless recording and performance schedule.

In January of 1961, Decca Records released “I Fall to Pieces,” which rocketed to the top of the charts. As Patsy’s star grew brighter, her husband’s affection withered away, but her success afforded a standard of living beyond anything they could have imagined in the backwaters of Virginia. They bought a dream house in Nashville’s suburbs, laid gold-flecked tiles in the bathroom, and filled the cabinets with bottles of booze.

Charlie often stayed at home with the kids, swilled liquor, and stewed on his slighted manhood. He hated it when his wife called him “Hoss,” and she refused to be called Patsy Dick.  He was also jealous of the men in Patsy’s life—and according to many of them, rightly so. “You ought to be home being a wife,” he would yell, “instead of hauling all over singing and fooling around!” Their domestic squabbles were legendary, and according to many, would often leave Patsy bruised up or Charlie in the drunk tank. But everyone who knew them agrees that despite the misery and constant bickering, they loved each other passionately until the bitter end.

In June of ’61, Patsy was riding through Nashville with her visiting brother when a passing vehicle hit them head-on. Patsy was thrown through the windshield. Her wrist was broken, her hip dislocated, and her forehead was sliced up from eyebrow to hairline. The lingering pain from her injuries would last the rest of her life, and she would never look the same. A jagged scar slashed across her face, and the headaches came constantly. Laying in a hospital bed, she took her preacher’s hand and prayed that the experience be a lesson to her, to inspire her to find happiness at home with her family.

By August she was rolling her wheelchair into the studio, where she recorded her signature track, “Crazy.” As soon as she got back on her feet again, she was out on the road. Having conquered Music City, her manager Randy Hughes booked her from Pensacola to Canada, including the Hollywood Bowl with Johnny Cash and numerous television appearances in New York City.

Patsy’s heart broke in two every time her bawling children chased her to the door, and the furious arguments with Charlie were taking a toll, but she had to keep going, she had to bring in the money. All the while, the hits kept coming. The iron was hot, and profiteers were hammering away at her soul. She spent her last Christmas on earth doing high-dollar gigs in Las Vegas, then cried into her hotel pillow while her kids described their presents on the phone. She told Randy Hughes she was ready to slow down. Randy told her where the next show would be.

Patsy’s last performance was a benefit for the surviving family of “Cactus Jack,” Kansas City’s most popular country deejay, who had been killed in a car crash in early 1963. Her last song was also her last recording, “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone” (though all the sails you’ve torn/ and when it starts to sinkin’, I’ll blame you.) The next morning, Patsy was tired, sick, and thoroughly disillusioned. She ached to be with her family—her two year-old boy was also sick—but a thunderstorm delayed their departure. Her best friend, Dottie West, was worried about Patsy flying in Randy’s little plane through such weather, and offered to drive her back. But Patsy decided to go with Randy. “Hoss,” Patsy told Dottie, “don’t worry about me ’cause when it comes my time to go, I’m going. If that little bird goes down, I guess I’ll go down with it.”

On March 5, 1963, Randy Hughes took off from Kansas City with three Opry stars onboard: Patsy Cline, Hankshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas. Randy followed behind a stormfront moving over Nashville, where their families anxiously awaited their arrival. They got lost in a stormcloud 90 miles out. Witnesses said the plane was flying erratically, cutting the tops off of pine trees before it dove straight into a hill. Search parties said the plane and crew were completely pulverized. Patsy’s bloody slip hung from a tree. Scavengers prowled among the wreckage, lifting whatever they could get their hands on. Soon the news was traveling over phone lines, the airwaves, and eventually the press.

The next day, Paul Harvey announced on his radio show: “Three familiar voices are silent today. And over an ugly hole on a Tennessee hillside, the heavens softly weep.” There was weeping from the darkest hollow to the brightest stage in Nashville. The fates had been merciful since the death of Hank Williams a decade earlier, but statistics finally caught up to Music City. Patsy’s wake was held in her dream house in Nashville, with her husband overcome with grief, her children crying out for their mother. Oddly enough, a fourth Opry star was mourned during her public memorial—news rippled through the crowds that Jack Anglin had been killed in a car accident on his way to the funeral. When it rains, it pours.

Days later, thousands of fans descended on her burial in Shenandoah Park, VA, stripping the gravesite of flower arrangements and cards in full view of the grieving family. Not that Patsy would have minded so much. With an eerie intuition, she had begun tying up loose ends and giving away her belongings in the months before her death. She kept saying she would die before turning 30, but she just made it.  Having sacrificed her home life in order to ascend to the vinyl heavens, it is only fitting that her adoring fans would scour the ground for relics when she came crashing down to the earth.  As one of the pallbearers noted: “It’s like a religion with them.”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

“Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray”1957

For further reading, see Ellis Nassour’s Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline.

January 1: The Death Day of
Hank Williams

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at

It’s that time of year again, when self-deluded pretenders swear off deadly vices, and morbid rubberneckers tally up the annual rock n’ roll body count. 2010 saw the passing of Ari Up of The Slits, garage rocker Jay Reatard, Ronnie James Dio (who brought the devil-horns hand gesture to heavy metal,) Malcolm McLaren (the media manipulator responsible for the Sex Pistols’ public personas,) and R&B’s paraplegic panty-drencher, Teddy Pendergrass.

Today also marks the 48th anniversary of Hank Williams’ tragic death. Found cold and blue in his ’52 Cadillac at the age of 29, sodden with morphine, chloral hydrate, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, he became the seminal celebrity martyr.

Dubbed the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank Williams blazed like a backwoods bonfire, enthralling honky-tonk hayseeds from coast to coast. He recorded 66 songs in 6 years, not counting the posthumous releases or spoken-word tracks as his alter-ego, Luke the Drifter. Hank infused the typical country themes of tragic love, unbearable solitude, copious carousing, and looming death with an ominous sincerity—the voice of a tortured lunatic hellbent on living out the songs that he wrote. When he sang “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” he fucking meant it.

Born to a physically broken father and a tough, overbearing mother in the sticks of Alabama, he was only six when his father was committed to a V.A. sanitorium. His mother, Lillie, ran a flophouse, where Hank grew up in the company of various roughnecks and ne’er-do-wells. The boy was a frail loner from the get-go. Due to damning genetics, rural malnutrition, or just plain ol’ hard luck, Hank showed symptoms of spina bifida occulta early on. His malformed vertebrae slowly pried apart under the weight of his body, allowing the spinal chord to protrude from the protective column. The physical agony of this birth defect would intensify over the course of his short life like a biological reminder of original sin. God clothed Adam and Eve in garments of skin, and the stitches were busting apart by the time they were handed down to Hank.

Lillie encouraged Hank to sing the Lord’s praises as a child, which surfaced in the gospel themes of his early recordings. His favorite childhood hymn was, appropriately, “Death is Only a Dream.” But Hank would also be inspired by more worldly influences. His adolescent fantasies were painted by early Western films, and townsfolk recalled the boy moseying about town in a cowboy hat with two pea-shooters strapped to his waist. As with many budding rednecks before and after, Hank took his first swig of hooch at age eleven. Most importantly, young Hank received guitar lessons from a local black street musician, the humpbacked Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. As with Brian Jones, Duane Allman, and Stevie Ray Vaughn after him, the incisive soul of black blues reverberated in Hank Williams’ falsetto twang and crack rhythms.

In 1937 Lillie moved her children to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, when Hank was thirteen. Under the heavy-handed management of his mother, Hank landed gigs with local radio stations, toured small hillbilly venues with his new band, The Cowboy Drifters, and guzzled booze as if it were good for him. While traveling with a medicine show in the summer of ’43, Hank encountered the sharp-tongued, aristocratic muse whose cold, cold heart would light him on fire.

Rural medicine shows were the post-Depression equivalent of today’s Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival. After performing, the musicians would meander through the crowd selling snake oil and herbs. As he peddled elixirs among the folk, Hank laid eyes on a lovely blonde belle and suddenly lightning struck. A few days later—shirtless and drunk—he proposed on their second date. Audrey Mae must have seen something special in his mischievous smirk and dark eyes, because they were married the next year after her divorce was finalized. Two years later, in 1946, the couple hopped off the train in Nashville, where Hank would record the bulk of his chart-topping material under the guidance of his mentor and confidant, Fred Rose.

Post-WWII Nashville was not the cornpone tourist trap one finds today. It had no mega-churches, no strip clubs, no amusement parks, and very few recording studios. In those days, high society Nashvillians proudly proclaimed their city as the Athens of the South, a thriving center of higher learning and aristocratic refinement. As such, they regarded the incoming hordes of git-tar wielding dreamers as whiskey-bent white trash. Still, the city boasted the most widely syndicated—and advertisement saturated—hillbilly radio show in the nation, WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Not long after his premiere on the coveted Prince Albert Tobacco segment in mid-1949, Hank Williams became the star of the show.

The importance of Fred Rose’s role in Hank’s meteoric rise to stardom cannot be stressed enough. From the early Sterling Records cuts like “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” to the seemingly endless string of MGM hits (37 in all,) Fred Rose was right there in the studio with Hank, sifting gold from the sandy depths of the country boy’s sorrow. Hank’s lyrics are a string of timeless gems, ranging from cynical humor to calloused despair, and rendered in Zen-like simplicity through clever rhymes. “People don’t write music,” he once claimed. “It’s given to you.”

Fred was also an industry insider who knew the right buttons to push. Always loyal to Hank, Rose was shrewd but never greedy. The same could not be said of Hank—at least in the beginning—and certainly not of Audrey. After years of nickel-and-diming it in Montgomery and Shreveport, LA, Hank and Audrey were ready for a break. Little Hank Jr. was on the way in early 1949 when “Lovesick Blues” made it to number one. That’s when the cash started pouring in, and soon they moved back to Nashville. Hank bought a house on Franklin Road—on what’s now known as Music Row—which Audrey set about renovating.

The flood of money provided for fur coats, crystal china, plush furniture, and fancy guitars—much of which was smashed to pieces in true rock n’ roll fashion. Hank and Audrey were known to beat the living damn-it out of each other on a regular basis, particularly when Hank was on one of his sloppy benders. Upon learning that Audrey had aborted another man’s child, he was inspired to write one of his greatest hits, “Cold, Cold Heart.” Though he grew weary of the constant touring, it must have provided some relief from a house without love. Certainly, he was never known to say no to a groupie—no matter what her age might be.

In 1950, Hank headlined the Hadacol Caravan, “the last and greatest medicine show.” Promoted by the always shady Senator Dudley LeBlanc of Louisiana, and featuring comedians, clowns, and West Coast show girls, the tour was a sort of product initiation ritual for Hadacol—LeBlanc’s 24-proof vitamin tonic, assured to induce instant whiskey shits. Though LeBlanc’s checks bounced repeatedly, the nationwide exposure blasted the “King of the Hillbillies” into the national mainstream. Soon Hank was signing Hollywood movie contracts and performing on the new electric church: network television. The irons were hot and Hank was banging away, but the suffocating culture of seedy opportunists and fat cat executives was crushing the life out of him. He had been transformed into a cartoonish commodity, when all he wanted to do was hunt squirrels and fish by a quiet river.

By 1951 Hank was pulling in over $100,000 a year, an inconceivable fortune in those days. His personal life, however, descended into a sorry shitstorm of pills, booze, screaming back pain, and unraveling relationships. He couldn’t buy enough toys to keep his son close to him. Audrey filed for divorce in January of 1952, citing Hank’s “continued misconduct,” and demanded a king’s ransom in settlements. Hank just continued falling apart. He continued to tour, but often showed up too drunk to play. Frequent stints in rehab were of no avail. The Opry canned him after repeated no-shows—though Hank insisted that he quit—and the Cowboy Drifters began moving on one by one. And yet, during this downward spiral ol’ Hank continued to record hit songs, such as “Jambalaya” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and even took one last stab at true love.

On October 19, 1952, the stunning Billie Jean Jones became Mrs. Hank Williams at the tender age of twenty, before a crowd of 14,000 people in New Orleans. Their wedding photo was to be Hank’s last. He wore a white hat and the purple bruises of a recent ass-whipping, and it was a matter of minutes before the bloom had blown off of the rose. Not yet thirty, Hank was reduced to a slobbering shell of his former glory—his appearance regularly fluctuated between withered and puffy, his scalp resembled a shiny coconut, he frequently puked and pissed on himself, and his cock stayed as limp as a leather tassel. He began to suffer wrenching chest pains, shortness of breath, and of course, his twisted back was wracked with excruciating spasms. His spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. He told Billie Jean, “Every time I close my eyes, I see Jesus coming down the road.” So it is understandable that he would turn to “Dr.” Toby Marshall for relief. This ex-con huckster, who’d bought his diploma in a gas station parking lot, provided unconditional understanding, prescriptions for morphine injections, and an unlimited supply of the potent barbiturate, chloral hydrate. Finally, a friend that Hank could rely on.

In the winter of ’52, Hank was booked for a New Year’s gig in Canton, OH—an uncommon occurrence at this point, given his notorious unreliability. He departed his mother’s boardinghouse in late December, left a note and a box of chocolates on his father’s doorstep, said goodbye to Billie Jean, and stepped into his powder blue Cadillac for one last road trip. His driver, Charles Carr, claims that Hank was in good spirits most of the way. He sang songs, beat a rhythm on the dashboard, and washed down chloral hydrates with cans of PBR. There are conflicting accounts from there—here’s one of them.

Snow fell in heavy blankets as the Caddy passed through Knoxville on New Year’s Eve. The pair wound up taking a room in the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Hank began hiccupping uncontrollably, so Carr phoned for a doctor. Dr. P.H. Cardwell arrived promptly, and booted Hank up with two shots of morphine mixed with vitamin B12—sure to knock out a hard case of the hiccups. Two porters carried Hank’s limp body to the car later that night. Carr gunned it for Canton, but when he stopped for gas in West Virginia, he found Hank stiff as a board. Autopsy reports revealed that Hank had bruises and contusions all over his body, but the final verdict was that he “died of severe heart condition and hemorrhage” on January 1, 1953.

From there, the preliminary blueprint for the dead rock star motif was drawn up and splashed across the newspapers. The vultures descended without hesitation. Hank’s funeral in Montgomery attracted close to 20,000 people—the largest U.S. crowd since the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. His white-clad body was buried with a white Bible beneath tons of concrete and hysterical tears, and his countless sins were publicly forgiven.

Immediately, his records began flying off the shelves, and every object he had touched became a holy hillbilly relic. From backwoods honky-tonks to trendy dive bars, “The Angel of Death” is now the official soundtrack for suicidal alcoholics and future opioid casualties, and shamelessly depraved writers [the author shifts in his seat nervously] rehash this sordid tale year after year. At 29, Hank Williams was canonized as a martyr in the church of excess, and so long as the Digital Machine keeps chugging along, his voice will echo for all eternity.

For further reading, see Colin Escott’s Hank Williams: The Biography.

© 2011 Joseph Allen