Somewhere in my mother’s possession (I’m not sure exactly where since she moves a lot of things around in her basement) is a collection of vinyl records, both of the 33-1/3 rpm single and full-size album varieties. (Kids, ask the DJ’s at the dance club; they probably play more than a few stacks of wax.) Mom’s records are almost all from the 1960s and 70s, and include a couple of those K-tel pop music compilation albums (“TWENTY amazing songs by your favorite artists!”); a handful of Bill Cosby comedy albums (from long before his name became a synonym for sleaze); and some from the country/western genre (her parents wouldn’t listen to anything else on their farm… well, unless it was polka). Among those country albums is this particular one:
The lady on that album cover is widely considered a true musical legend: Patsy Cline. Without turning this post into a treatise on the genre, I’ll note that country music these days could be considered generic, consultant-driven, and certainly male-centric; I’ll dare use the word “unauthentic.” Despite all that, it does cater to a pop/rock music sensibility in a way, and younger audiences are certainly eating up.
This might be a surprise to those modern-day younger audiences, but adding pop music seasonings to country music isn’t anything new. In fact, the pop-in-country transfusion first surfaced in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when honky tonk and bluegrass gave way to “the Nashville sound” in popularity and radio play. Patsy Cline was a prominent star during that era, with her lovely contralto voice — one that delivered powerful emotion — combining with lush, near-symphonic orchestration to produce pioneering work. Even over a half-century after her she left this world far too soon, and at a time when pop and rock (and, yes, “bro”) sensibilities have country music by a stranglehold, Cline’s work is considered timeless and powerful, inspiring and influential.
Which brings me to the album shown above. A Portrait of Patsy Cline was one of a handful of Cline albums released posthumously. It’s basically a compilation album, featuring some of her lesser-known recordings of pop and country standards, all recorded in the 13 months before her untimely death in March 1963. The lushness and haunting emotion in Cline’s voice are in full display here, including one track I’ll delve into at the end of this post.
I’m not sure when Mom added A Portrait of Patsy Cline to her record shelf; for all I know, she may have acquired it before I was born. But my first recollection of hearing this album — and of hearing Cline’s voice — occurred when I was about 7 years old, and it came as a result of my sister, who is one year younger than I am and who, one day, was in a somewhat hyperactive mood. With Mom outside in the yard or making a gossip stop at our neighbor’s home (or so I want to think), Sis was suddenly interested in how Mom’s record player worked. So, she pulled one of Mom’s albums from the shelf, which just happened to be A Portrait of Patsy Cline. Sis put it on the turntable, put the needle down… and became what I considered a little bit destructive, as she started to putz around with the on/off switch, the volume knob, and especially the speed settings. Sis was having her way with Patsy Cline’s vocals, turning all those haunting melodies into a garbled mess.
Of course, being the reasonable(?) son I was trying to be, I would have none of what my sister was doing. I tried to slap her hands away from the record record player. I was shrieking at the top of my lungs: “NOOOOOOO! Stop doing that!! You’re not supposed to be doing that!”
Yes, I was upset at my sister for what she was doing. But I wasn’t doing it so much in an advising “Mom’s going to be mad at both of us” tone; rather, it was more of a “Don’t do such a crass thing to such a beautiful voice” way. And it was indeed how I felt then: From the moment Sis put the needle down, Patsy Cline’s vocals held sway over me; I felt I had never heard such beautiful singing until then. Of course, I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of the lyrics about love and longing and such (I was too young), but Cline sang them as though the weight of the world were on her. She sang as if there were real emotions coming through. She sang as if… as if she were a mother soothing her child. (Perhaps that’s why Mom had the album.) Simply put, Patsy Cline sounded… angelic.
To this day, I’ll never forget the feeling I experienced when I first heard Patsy Cline sing. Whenever I come across one of her songs, be it “Walking After Midnight” or “Crazy” or “Sweet Dreams” or something else from her repertoire, I still get pulled in by the power and emotion in Cline’s voice. I came across one of those songs on internet radio this week, “Always,” which happens to be a track on A Portrait of Patsy Cline. Irving Berlin actually wrote “Always” several years before Patsy Cline was born, and several others have recorded the song before and after she did. And “Always” is a truly moving song, featuring lyrics that communicate love, sincerity, optimism, and support, especially when “days may not be fair.” But add Patsy Cline’s voice to those lyrics, along with those lush instrumentals and backing vocals that defined “the Nashville sound,” and you have a song that is truly moving… even angelic. I admit I cry almost every time I hear “Always” being played; heck, one time I heard it played by a windup jewelry box and got all weepy. I’ll admit, too, that when I heard Patsy Cline’s “Always” this week, my eyes got a little bit moist again.
Below, I have embedded a YouTube link of Cline’s version of “Always,” and if you’re like me, you’ll want to have a box of tissues at the ready. I truly feel this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and that Patsy Cline’s singing voice is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. I think you’ll feel the same way, too, when you hear it.