Patsy Cline PBS Documentary Celebrates a Pioneer in Pop Crossover & Unspoken Country Feminism

Patsy Cline
Courtesy of PBS

Patsy Cline

Patsy Cline is associated with the word “timeless” because of her flawless contralto, eerily aching ballads and recordings that seem to deliver the songs from God’s own living room. But there’s also an eternality to the debates over what’s country and what’s pop that inevitably revert back to Cline’s boundary-breaking as an early touchstone. Arguing about country-pop crossover? Now that’s timeless.

These issues come up -- along with all the narrative beats and deserved gushing you’d expect -- in Patsy Cline: American Masters, an hour-long documentary special that premieres on PBS stations starting March 4. The Rosanne Cash-narrated show recruits notable fans ranging from Reba McEntire to Nashville creator Callie Khouri to speak truth about Cline’s power, along with country music historians who address how she shifted the genre as a stylist and a woman. It’s the archival performance footage that’ll grab viewers most, though: Cline knew how to connect with a camera as well as anybody in or out of hillbilly music during her few years as a star.

“I consider her the Adele of that time,” says rising country singer Mickey Guyton, who stopped by a Television Critics Association panel in Pasadena recently to sing a few Cline classics. “I remember the moment I heard Adele sing and it was like, What in the hell? I came out of my room and asked, ‘What on Earth is that?’ That’s exactly what Patsy had. They both had that voice and real, devastating songs that got you right here. And Adele came in at a time when it was popular to be extremely skinny, as well as have all the backup dancers, and just stood at a mic, like Patsy.”

Beverly D’Angelo, who played Cline in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, remembers doing research for the role in Nashville in 1979 and talking with a lot of Cline’s contemporaries who were still around, not that many years after she perished in a 1963 plane crash. “There were several people who made a point of saying, ‘Well, she wasn’t a pretty girl. She was a big girl.’ That’s something I’m very sensitive to. And it occurs to me that one thing she was spared was the whole era of MTV and all the stuff that followed as country music started to open up and become more of a visual medium instead of just based on the songs. So I don’t know how she would have fit into that. It’s certainly a once in a lifetime thing.”

“I think maybe she would have become a Barbra Streisand,” says director Barbara J. Hall. “She showed that she could not just be pigeonholed. She earned her chops listening to big bands, she went country western, then she went country pop, then she went pop.”

Notes D’Angelo: “She was dramatic. It’s hard to even think of an equivalent today in country who sings songs of that same dramatic nature.” Hall offers a possible reason for that, one that has to do with transforming lemons into lemonade: “At that time, the female performers were instructed to stand very still and not move. There was a little bit of her movement, but she was very much instructed to be still, particularly in television performances. So that may have pushed her to be more emotional with her voice, because she has to get it across, and she couldn’t express it physically.”

There were other dichotomies with Cline. She was the epitome of country class, both in the countrypolitan style she finally successfully adopted and in her eventual public persona. But even if her music got smoother, she didn’t, necessarily. As Kacey Musgraves says in the special’s opening, “She was just kind of a tough girl, singing these really sensitive songs, so there was kind of a cool juxtaposition there. I feel like you could go out and have a drink with her, but she could also beat your ass.”

Cline’s early records were straight-down-the-middle twangy and the Virginia native’s cowgirl outfits were hardly suited for crossover appeal. But, as the show makes clear, the lucky combination of a pairing with country superproducer Owen Bradley and a new Decca contract that allowed her more artistic freedom conspired to bring the world the slightly more cosmopolitan Cline both country and city folk came to revere.

“Owen really delivered her,” says D’Angelo. “I remember Owen saying to me that one of his challenges with Patsy was that she wanted to growl. I think without Owen she probably would have gone more in the direction of some of her contemporaries like Dottie West, or Wanda Jackson, even, who were kind of rocking a little bit. Because she was pretty wild. But I think that he saw in her something that maybe she didn’t even see in herself, as far as the depth of her feeling and the universality of her voice.”

One thing the documentary doesn’t delve into is the myths that have grown up around the alleged combativeness in Cline’s second marriage to Charlie Dick, who died just last year.

“I did meet Charlie and got to know him,” says Hall. “That notion of domestic abuse… was never really substantiated, Charlie has been asked outright multiple times, Is there any truth to that? He said, and I can almost quote, ‘We loved each other and we battled each other. We were a little bit of oil and water. One time I did raise my hand to her and she slugged me...  And I never did it again.’ I think it’s also important to put it in its time and place. In Winchester, Virginia, times were different and the 'term domestic' abuse wasn’t even thought. So my take on Patsy is that if anybody did raise a hand to her, it was only gonna happen once and the other person would have come out worse.”

What’s definitely clear is that Dick supported Cline’s career in a way that was not wholly characteristic of all husbands of show-biz females at the time. “He took care of the kids… long before that was trendy," added Hall. "He was a bit of a Mr. Mom.”

Hall hopes that her documentary might raise interest in another dramatized feature film about Cline’s life and career, to complement or supersede 1985's Sweet Dreams, which came out more than 30 years ago.

“I think it’s time for a Patsy Cline movie that’s a little closer to the real story,” Hall says. “I don’t want to diss them. It was 1985 and they produced what they thought people wanted to see. But her story is so great, you don’t have to embellish... It was just the love story between her and Charlie, so they missed the early years of what got her there. And by every account, I don’t think they got the love story right; I don’t think it was anywhere near as volatile as what they showed... I don’t think they even got the relationship between her and Owen right.... They had a great, cordial relationship. Owen is such a humble guy, I can’t see him ever treating anyone -- let alone Patsy Cline -- in that kind of diminishing way they portrayed in the movie.”

D’Angelo is also not especially high on Sweet Dreams, for somewhat personal reasons. Not getting to play Cline in that film was “one of my biggest heartbreaks -- just horrible,” she says, explaining the part had been promised to her after her role in Coal Miner’s Daughter earned her a Golden Globe nomination. 

She continued, “Then I got this call from the same producer who said, ‘Here’s the thing: We’ve been so attached to you because you can sing … but now we’re at Universal and we have the rights to Patsy’s voice, so we’ve realized that we don’t need a singing actress, we need the best actress we can get.’ And I wasn’t me -- it was Jessica [Lange]… Playing Patsy opened up my career in a million ways. But the experience that I went through [subsequently] opened my eyes to the business side of that and I was like, bye! It changed what I would allow myself to engage in as far as the ride that you can take in Hollywood, or not.”

Going on to a guff-free career? Cline, a proto-feminist before her time, would hardly have wanted it any other way.


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