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Remembering Patsy Cline

Forty years after Virginia-born country singer Patsy Cline died in a plane crash near the marshy banks of the Tennessee River, fans leave plastic flowers and written messages at the crash site.

"I wish I could of met you, Patsy," one says.

"Patsy, you're my inspiration in music," another reads.

Cline's influence continues long after she expressed longing and heartache in classics such as "Crazy" and "I Fall to Pieces."

Cline recently topped Country Music Television's 40 Greatest Women in Country, a list selected by industry insiders; and MCA plans to release a tribute album with singers as diverse as Norah Jones, k.d. lang, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall and Terri Clark.

"They are timeless songs with timeless arrangements sung in a timeless voice," said country singer Bill Anderson, a friend and contemporary of Cline's at the Grand Ole Opry. "They sound as new and as fresh as when they first came out."

LeAnn Rimes, who drew comparisons to Cline for her 1996 hit "Blue," a song written specifically for Cline but which she never recorded, said the late singer was one of her earliest and strongest influences.

"Her voice was so powerful and amazing," Rimes said. "You can put her up against any artist now and she would blow a lot of those away. To come across a true singer like that doesn't happen very often."

Hundreds of fans gathered in the western Tennessee town of Camden last weekend to celebrate Cline, whom friends recalled as a bold, plainspoken woman who loved to laugh and addressed everyone as "Hoss" or "Chief."

The event was less than five miles from where the private plane carrying Cline and three others - manager and pilot Randy Hughes and fellow Grand Ole Opry stars Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins - went down in a thunderstorm March 5, 1963, while returning from a benefit in Kansas City.

The crash stunned Nashville. Hughes was a gifted musician and entrepreneur; Copas was an Opry veteran whose career had enjoyed a resurgence with the 1960 hit "Alabam"; and Hawkins was a honky-tonk singer who never got to see his biggest hit, "Lonesome 7-7203," top the charts.

"My mother and I went to the airport to meet the plane," recalled Kathy Hughes, who lost her father, Copas, and husband, Hughes, in the crash. "When it didn't come in, I knew something had happened."

She kept calling friends through the night to see if anyone had heard anything. News of the wreck didn't come to her until the next morning when she heard it on the radio.

Cline was only 30 when she died. Her life was one of hardship, her career marked by stops and starts.

Cline grew up in the Winchester, Va., area and dropped out of school at 15 to support her family after her father deserted them.

As a teenager she sang in juke joints, amateur musicals and talent shows. She signed her first recording contract in 1954 with Four Star Records.

The association lasted six years but was a source of frustration for Cline, who claimed the label swindled her out of earnings and gave her substandard material to record.

Her break came in 1957 when she sang "Walkin' After Midnight" on Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" show. The song became a hit on both country and pop charts.

But a dry spell followed and Cline sank into semiretirement.

"It seemed like every time Patsy tried to stand up someone tried to knock her back down," Anderson said.

Desperate for money, she signed with Decca in 1960 and agreed to record "I Fall to Pieces," a tune chosen for her by producer Owen Bradley that featured backing by the Jordanaires, best known for their work with Elvis Presley.

The song was an early expression of the Nashville sound, which incorporated lush arrangements with strings and backing vocals to expand country's appeal. It made both country and pop charts and revived Cline's career.

Still, Cline resisted the new sound.

"Patsy fought him (Bradley) every step of the way," recalled Jan Howard, an Opry member and friend of Cline's. (Her husband, Harland Howard, co-wrote "I Fall to Pieces.") "She wanted fiddles and steel guitars."

Cline survived a serious car crash in 1961 and continued her momentum with the Bradley-produced hits "Crazy" and "She's Got You." Her posthumously released singles "Leavin' on Your Mind" and "Sweet Dreams" both made the Top 10.

A popular 1985 movie, "Sweet Dreams," with Jessica Lange and the play "Always ... Patsy Cline" in the '90s helped keep her memory alive. She was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973.

Cline's biggest contribution to the genre was her ability to broaden its audience and appeal to country and non-country fans alike, said Jay Orr, senior museum editor at the Hall of Fame.

"She set a standard to which country vocalists of both genders aspire," he said.

By John Gerome

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