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The Country Music Hall of Fame’s new Patsy Cline exhibit seeks the woman within the legend

You Belong to Me

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A few weeks ago, Mick Buck, curatorial director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, stood in the middle of a partially completed exhibit lifting paired objects from a cart with careful gloved hands and laying them on a table. He paused to let each one register its comic impact before picking up the next.

One set was molded in the shapes of bloomers and a corset. Another set of figurines had fiddles for heads. There were cucumbers and teepees, sombreros and she-devils, zebras, turkeys and cartoon feet whose big toes protruded at alarming angles. For the pièce de résistance, Buck produced a couple of ceramic hound dogs. Though it isn't obvious from their placement in the finished display, when properly positioned, one appears to be sniffing the other's genitals in the universal canine greeting.

These are not necessarily the sorts of artifacts you'd expect to find in the hallowed halls of 222 Fifth Ave. S. But before she was a bona fide genre-transcending superstar, a tragic figure and a legend, Patsy Cline was something harder to understand, let alone classify: a human being with ordinary quirks and whims — including, yes, a weakness for silly, collectible salt-and-pepper shakers.

Except ordinary human beings are rarely recognized with a major exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where Crazy For Loving You, a laudable tribute to the late country great, has just begun a 10-month run. Cline was the first solo female performer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and her half-century-old tchotchkes come courtesy of her daughter, Julie Fudge, one of two children she had with her second husband, Charlie Dick.

"[Julie] called and said she had found some things she was going to bring down and show us, including some salt-and-pepper shakers," Buck says, meticulously laying out the items. "But we had no idea they were going to be this funny and this cool. So I'm standing there as she's unwrapping them one set at a time and I'm going, 'Oh my God! This is genius!' "

"Oh, they are!" Fudge concurs in a separate phone interview. "And that was one of the reasons why I brought those particular ones down there."

Assembling an exhibit is never a simple task, but it's even less so when the aim is offering fresh insight into Patsy Cline and her music in 2012. What do you show of a singer whose fans already have everything? Her commercial recordings all remain in print. Her Greatest Hits collection has sold upwards of 10 million copies. Her story has been embellished Hollywood-style on the big screen and made into a popular stage production. And her fame has far and away taken on a life of its own.

Contemporary listeners hear classic songs like "I Fall to Pieces," "She's Got You" and "Crazy" and picture a hopeless romantic aching for love — since that's more or less the way Jessica Lange played Cline in the movie Sweet Dreams — or a knowingly sophisticated diva who refused to let the conservatism of country tradition hold her back. She did, after all, come in at No. 11 — the highest of any country-affiliated artist — in VH1's 100 Greatest Women of Rock 'n' Roll countdown. In an interview for the segment, quintessential British hipster Marianne Faithfull balances a cigarette between her fingers and hits the perception on the head: "She made country music hip and cool."

In the popular imagination, flourishing legend is bound to overpower fully rounded personhood. Cline was a star when she died, but not yet the object of fascination she'd become. Preserving her belongings for posterity didn't seem like such a pressing concern. (Keep in mind, too, this was a few years before there was a museum to house country music's historical narratives.)

"Well, at that time, you know, if you lose someone in your family, you put good use to the things that are left and save a few things," says Fudge, who was 4 years old when she lost her mother. "I'm sure my grandmother had worn a few of the clothes and that she had shared a few of the clothes, things like that. Then as we grow up and it becomes interesting, well, you know, 'Oh, this was her dining room set. We have pictures of her decorating the dining room table.' But the truth of the matter is, we used that table for another 20 years." (Later on, some of Cline's personal effects also wound up being sold at a Christie's auction.)

In Cline's honor, the gallery space that last held the six-strings and stories of Chet Atkins — and before that, the loud beaded gowns and vignettes of Tammy Wynette — has gotten more than a facelift. Several rows of benches now sit facing a screen on the back wall, the idea being people are more prone to stay and watch the exhibit's original film if they can take a load off. And it's worth watching, not only for the interviews with Cline contemporary Brenda Lee, "Crazy" songwriter Willie Nelson, A-Team session player Harold Bradley and Jordanaire Ray Walker, but also to hear her unaccompanied singing for a few striking moments.

"We had access to the original three-track recordings she had done at Bradley Studios in the early '60s, including 'Crazy' and 'Sweet Dreams' and some of the big hits, as well as some of the more deep catalog stuff," Buck says. "One track was generally just the band, one track would be the backup singers, usually the Jordanaires, and there would be one track that was her vocal, the isolated vocal. And just hearing her isolated vocal, it was breathtaking, because you really could hear her breathe."

Hearing her breathe — that's the kind of immediacy and intimacy fans born after 1963 have always wished they could have with Patsy Cline. What the Hall of Fame and Museum hopes to offer is the next best thing — a tangible sense of the person whose brief recorded legacy casts a lingering spell.

As biographical arcs go, Cline's is viscerally fascinating: A down-home barroom country entertainer — poor in cash for most of her life, but rich in voice and ambition — eventually makes good as a torch singer for the ages. But there's also a less obvious narrative arc that picks up after her untimely passing at age 30: the continued growth of her celebrity. As hard it is to believe, she enjoyed just two years of true commercial success. The global stature that seems inevitable in hindsight seemed highly unlikely for a good part of her eight-year recording career.

She was born Virginia, in Virginia. (Her full name was Virginia Patterson Hensley, and the town was Winchester.) By 14 she was on local radio, and she dropped out of school to work the following year, after her dad left the family. She did her share of pop listening and supper-club singing, but her heart was always set on joining the Opry. She gravitated toward a hot and brassy performance style tailored to rough-and-tumble bars.

Cline started out on Four Star, an independent label that licensed her recordings to Decca. The royalty rate was pitifully low; what's worse, she could only cut songs for which her label head held the publishing. Lucky for her, Decca had Owen Bradley produce her from the start. But even with all the sessions they did during the '50s, they were only able to squeeze a single hit out of that subpar catalog: "Walkin' After Midnight."

Owen's younger brother Harold Bradley played tic-tac bass on nearly all those sessions. "Actually, I've been listening to this box set [that encompasses the Four Star years], and we did a lot of bad songs," Bradley says. "It's unbelievable. Owen tried everything. ... It's amazing because we started out one of the songs, we had the acoustic guitar like 'Young Love.' Then we did a 4/4 shuffle, a Bob Wills country song. Then [Owen] did one that was just so pop it was unbelievable, with the piano. And then we did some rock 'n' roll songs, or we played rock 'n' roll on a country song. ... Owen and Patsy were scrambling trying to come up with something. She hadn't really developed her style, either. She was in the mode of singing real loud and then trying to do those real high endings, you know, like she did onstage. It was quite a process.

"The amazing thing," he later drives home, "is that the first thing she did on Decca with Owen was a hit, and after that — well, everything was hits."

Indeed, after Cline got free of that bad contract and signed to Decca outright in 1960, most of her singles became at least modest hits, not just on the country chart but the pop one, too. Session by session, Bradley added ingredients of what we now know as the Nashville Sound — first the floating-on-a-cloud backing vocals of the Jordanaires, then filigreed piano accents and eventually sweeping strings. He and Chet Atkins, the other great studio mind credited as co-architect of this countrypolitan aesthetic, hit on something that worked so well it shifted country's center of gravity. But it wasn't the streamlined strategy that it's often made out to be now.

"I don't think [producers] Chet Atkins or Owen Bradley or any of their contemporaries had a master plan: 'OK, as of Jan. 1, 1960, we're gonna bring in vocal choruses and we've got strings,' " says historian Paul Kingsbury, who wrote an essay for the companion book to the Hall of Fame exhibit. "I think they would test it and say, 'Well that worked pretty well with Brenda Lee. Let's see if this might work with ...' "

Initially, Cline wasn't too keen on being made a guinea pig. She'd been shaping her crowd-pleasing entertainer's instincts for years, and wasn't looking to take them uptown. "From what we've heard from her friends and contemporaries," Kingsbury says, "she really got a lot of great audience feedback from her uptempo kind of hot-mama numbers that she would do — like 'Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey,' a staple of hers — that she tended to gravitate toward uptempo numbers that she could really, really sing the hell out of, and was less comfortable with ballads where the mood was subdued and she couldn't show off much."

But that didn't mean she couldn't learn the art of putting her contralto to more nuanced use. Says Kingsbury, "It took Owen Bradley essentially coaching her through and putting arrangements together for her through songs like 'I Fall To Pieces' and 'Crazy' before she began to realize, 'Oh, I don't have to pull out all the stops on every number for it to be good.' "

Cline had the range and the smooth timbre for ballads like "Crazy," with its minor seventh jazz chords and musing, alliterative lyrics. But she chafed at the very idea of going pop, a position she articulated to her fan club president Treva Miller in a 1957 letter that can be found in the book Love Always, Patsy: "And for the readers, you can tell them, if I do start recording pop (which I wouldn't like except I could use the money) it will be under the name of 'Ginny Patterson.' Using my middle name and first name. That way no one could put the 2 together unless it was made public."

Those are the words of a performer who feels she needs to reassure her fans they won't be left behind. Joli Jensen devoted an entire chapter of her book Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music to unpacking Cline's stylistic journey in relationship to the genre she called home.

"For Patsy," Jensen wrote, "to go pop was to abandon an identity and a vital connection to her background, beliefs, and experience. She refused to sever those connections, over and over. But the music business was struggling with the same tensions, and she was eventually able to be more or less comfortable in Music Row, by singing smooth, arranged material, while calling herself, and believing herself to be, a country performer."

If Cline has her say in Crazy For Loving You, it's primarily her own doing. Some of the most valuable of the artifacts in the exhibit are her words, from the bio just inside the doorway — almost certainly written by her hand — to the scrapbook in which she saved newspaper clippings reporting on her tour dates and chart entries and letters she wrote to fans, friends and family. It wasn't like trade publications of the day did in-depth interviewing, so her correspondence is an invaluable resource — one that's also the centerpiece of a book (Love Always, Patsy) and a stage play (Always ... Patsy Cline). It makes for an engrossing and revealing approach here.

"She just really poured her heart out in some of these letters," Buck says. "Some of them are very candid. As much as possible we wanted to kind of let Patsy tell her story in her own voice, her own words. And a lot of the text panels, I mean, basically it follows the usual chronological, biographical arc. But as much as we could, we quoted from the letters, Patsy's words talking about a specific phase of her career or specific event."

Reading Cline's letters (including parts where she talks about not being able to afford a phone or walking in the door from tour only to have to make dinner) and viewing the three outfits on display (a fringed cowgirl stage costume designed by her and sewn by her mom, an upscale cocktail dress she wore later on, and sassy gold lamé pedal pushers), you get the sense that she was the first truly modern woman in country music. She tried to have it both ways: to somehow balance domestic and public spheres, to not be limited in the roles she played — the "country girl singer" mold certainly didn't make room for a wife, mother, headliner and sex symbol — to speak her mind, even if she didn't always get her way, and to find success without losing her sense of identity.

By the time Cline perished in a plane crash in 1963, she'd had a dozen charting singles. But her level of fame wasn't really so far from that of the other two singers on board with her, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, whose names would probably draw a blank stare from a non-history buff now. It's her lingering impact — as embodied by ongoing record sales, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and that plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame — that puts her in an entirely different league.

Julie Fudge was a teenager when her mom was posthumously inducted into the latter. "I do remember that we got to go to the awards ceremony," she says, "and I enjoyed that and I knew it was a big honor." On the other hand, she says with a laugh, "Not growing up with my feet in the country music business like a lot of Nashville was, I was just your typical teenager listening to rock music. I was impressed because Dad knew that man that managed ZZ Top."

Fudge and her husband now run the Always Patsy Cline fan club, but a lot of people had no idea Patsy was her mom while she was growing up. "When I went back for a high school reunion there were people there that did not know until they had seen the movie Sweet Dreams and connected the name," she explains. "So we weren't anybody different than your neighbors back then."

Several factors enhanced Cline's standing over the years, starting with a twin dose of Hollywood mythmaking: the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter (in which Beverly D'Angelo played Cline as Lynn's big-hearted mentor) followed by 1985's Sweet Dreams — a movie that took considerable liberties in telling the story of Cline's romance with Charlie Dick, and placed considerably less emphasis on her music career. In print, Ellis Nassour's beloved, gossipy biography Honky Tonk Angel ratcheted up the drama surrounded the events of her life and helped elevate her profile outside of the country world. Here in Nashville, the show Always ... Patsy Cline — in which the gifted Mandy Barnett landed the starring role two decades ago — gave audiences a sense of what it was like to hear her material live on the Ryman's stage.

Barnett got hooked on Cline's Greatest Hits when she was a budding 8-year-old singer. "I really struggled with the fact that she had been dead at that point 20 years," she recalls. "That was hard to wrap my brain around, because I wanted more. I wanted to know what I could about her."

That's the thing about a popular performer who dies young: scarcity. There's no more of her or her work to be had — at least not without resorting to posthumous studio tricks or the hologram craze — which only heightens fans' desire for it. But canonization is certainly not a given. Plenty of country, pop and rock singers have met dramatic early ends without becoming icons.

Attached to Patsy Cline is a powerful narrative of struggling and overcoming. That, in addition to the nervy way she carried herself, makes it easy to relate to her, even in a context far removed from hers — just as her premature death set her up to be idolized, idealized and frozen in time. But any discussion of her towering contemporary importance — just like any quality museum exhibit on her — inevitably turns to her best-known music.

Barnett has spent as much time with Cline's songs as anyone, performing and recording them and frequently drawing their influence into her own work, spanning hardcore country to jazzy pop. (She and Harold Bradley gave a pair of performances the exhibit's opening week.) Says Barnett, "I think her music doesn't sound dated. It's very classic, timeless. It still sounds fresh. I mean, there's records that sound more dated from the '90s than her records do."

True enough. (Mutt Lange's big gated snare sounds haven't aged particularly well.) But Cline wasn't nearly as concerned with how her body of work would hold up down the road as she was with making music that would grab, and hang onto, her immediate audience. It just so happens that she also possessed one of the finest vocal instruments in the history of country music.

Her expressive depth has translated almost seamlessly into the era of solitary listening. Play "Crazy" on earbuds — an isolation-chamber experience if ever music provides one — and the way she simultaneously luxuriates in love's extremes with her sumptuous low notes yet sounds pierced through by them when she ascends to the melody's peak will make the rest of the world fade away for two minutes and 42 seconds. Her most lasting songs feel big enough to hold all the loneliness and longing anyone anywhere wants to project onto them.

Which is why it's significant that this new exhibit reconnects the performances to which the whole wide classic-country and pop-loving world has staked its claim with the particulars of their performer's life and perspective. The salt-and-pepper shakers certainly don't hurt the effort. "What all that means to me," says Fudge, "what I wanted people to see when they come to the place, what I hope that the Hall of Fame would show, was that she was just like everyone else. When she went places, she'd collect souvenirs, and they were small, dime-store souvenirs, little kitschy things that everyone collected."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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