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A Short Yet Prolific and Powerful Life Story is Told on ‘Patsy Cline: American Masters’
March 4, 2017  | By David Hinckley

More than half a century after her death, Patsy Cline remains a north star to women artists in country music and beyond.

That’s not the main reason Barbara J. Hall produced and directed Patsy Cline: American Masters, which premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

“Much as I love Patsy Cline’s music,” says Hall, “I really came to her through her story. It just speaks to me.”

Most country music fans and many pop music fans know the music Cline created over a brief seven-year career that ended with a plane crash on March 5, 1963.

Recordings like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Back in Baby’s Arms” and “She’s Got You” have become contemporary standards and are routinely cited by artists like Loretta Lynn as guideposts on their music road.

This American Masters includes a generous sampling of that music, much of it from live television shows on which Cline appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The staging of the songs is often ridiculously hokey, but the music never falters, and even some of the video is strangely engaging.

For “Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray” – now there’s a song that wouldn’t get traction today – Cline sits alone in a restaurant, with just the ashtray on her table. A man sits several tables in the background, never looking up. The black-and-white gloss of the footage gives the song an even more haunted edge.

Most of the hour, however, traces Cline’s life, in which she rose from poverty to fame on what Hall calls no more than talent and willpower.

“She didn’t start out with a strategy,” says Hall. “She just did it. And she did it with two kids at home and very little money.”

Hall suggests Cline simply ignored the conventional wisdom of the time, which was that female artists weren’t supposed to make it in country music at all.

Before Cline, there were Sara and Maybelle Carter, Patsy Montana, Kitty Wells and not a lot of others. The country music business didn’t think it was profitable to record them; country radio stations didn’t think listeners wanted to hear them. And of course, that was still the era when even Rosie the Riveter was supposed to have dutifully gone back home to bake cookies.

“For Patsy, it was different,” says Hall. “She was raised in the Depression by a single mother, which was almost unheard of unless you’d been widowed.

“They didn’t have much money. They didn’t have electricity in the house where she grew up. She dropped out of school to get a job. But her mother was strong and independent, and I think Patsy took that from her. When she wanted to pursue music, her mother encouraged her.”

Cline’s career started on a standard track, like Saturday night dances and local radio shows.

She was in her early 20s when she got together with producer Owen Bradley. Hall notes that the new “Nashville sound” emerging in the mid-1950s, with a smoother pop veneer and fewer classic country elements like pedal steel, suited Cline perfectly since she’d grown up with big band music as well as country.

She and Bradley made dozens of fine records for the 4-Star label, which was the good and bad news. It established her as an artist while still leaving her scrambling to pay the rent.

“The 4-Star contract paid her half what male artists were getting,” says Hall. “The only way she made any money was touring, which took her away from her family.”

She finally moved over to Decca, where she cut many of her most enduring songs. Even there, she wasn’t reaping all of what she had sowed.

“She never really saw the full rewards of her music,” says Hall. “When she got a check from Decca, she and [her husband], Charlie Dick (right, with Cline), bought what they called their dream house. It was a modest little three-bedroom, nothing like what people imagined a star like Patsy Cline would be living in.”

On the upside, Hall notes that maybe it did feel like a mansion since it was such an upgrade from her previous homes.  

“She suffered a lot of adversity,” says Hall. “She was in a serious car accident that laid her up for months and affected her appearance. But I think that all in all, she enjoyed herself. She did what she loved. I think she had a good time.”

Hall, who has previously been involved in music productions on artists ranging from George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Shania Twain to The Band, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Roy Orbison, says she had been hoping to do an American Masters on Cline for years.

“I would love to have done six hours on her story,” says Hall. “There’s so much there, about how she overcame the obstacles.”

Hall also has a wish list of other artists whose stories she would love to tell, including Wanda Jackson and Charley Pride. She’d also love to do a documentary, she says, on how women have been treated in the music business, historically and up to the present.

For now, though, she’s happy to have told Cline’s story.

“I’m thrilled,” she says, “to have been able to do this for American Masters.”

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