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PATSY'S PEOPLE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It has been 30 years since the accident, one of those tragedies that defines a musical era by silencing a singular voice.

A week before she was to appear in an all-star country music show at the Baltimore Civic Center, Patsy Cline died in an airplane crash in a forest next to the Tennessee River. The date was March 5, 1963. She was 30 years old.

Today, three decades after her death, her legacy endures. Patsy Cline record sales are measured in the millions annually; she is consistently one of MCA's top 10 country music sellers. And this past September, the U.S. Postal Service honored her with a stamp.

Album liner notes and books alike tell us to look to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for her ghost, but Nashville is far afield of her earliest influences. We need only to look to our west, to Frederick and Washington counties and to small towns nearby in West Virginia and Virginia.

This is Patsy Cline Country.

Ready to sing

Her story begins in Gore, a village just off Route 50 near Winchester, Va., mere feet from the West Virginia border. Here, on Sept. 8, 1932, 16-year-old Hilda Hensley gave birth to Virginia Patterson Hensley, who 30 years later would be known around the world as Patsy Cline.

Life in the Shenandoah Valley proved hard for the growing Hensley family. Her younger sister Sylvia remembers that "we moved 19 times in 16 years [between 1932 and 1948] so our father could make a living as a blacksmith."

The grizzly, 40ish Sam Hensley could not regularly provide for his family a phone, toilet or running water, but a radio seemed almost always present and for a while, a piano. Virginia learned to mimic her favorite singers, from Patsy Montana to Roy Acuff. In church, she learned gospel songs she'd later record.

A rare treat was going to the movies; Virginia imitated singing star Shirley Temple. Later, she developed a serious throat infection, and thereafter sounded not like a Hollywood child star, but a booming, belting Ethel Merman or Kate Smith. "I can't read a note of music and I never took a singing lesson in my life," she told the Washington Star in 1956.

After World War II, the family settled in Winchester, Va., which is most often cited as Patsy Cline's hometown. Seeking work in the Newport News, Va., shipyards, Sam Hensley left his wife, two daughters and son on Kent Street in the "bottoms," the poorest part of town.

The family needed money. And Virginia was ready to sing. At age 14, she talked her way into a job with a band at WINC, a Winchester radio station that broadcast live music (and still operates from 520 N. Pleasant Valley Road). She dropped out of Handley High School in her sophomore year and became a waitress at Gaunt's Drug Store, a teen hangout with a marble soda fountain and a half-dozen wooden booths (still at the corner of South Loudoun Street and Valley Avenue).

Undereducated but standing straight and tall in her white uniform, Virginia Hensley was the ever-purposeful firstborn -- driven, strong-willed. The job paid $35 a week and left her time to free-lance as a hillbilly girl singer.

Very salt of the earth'

Virginia eventually found steady work in music at the Moose Lodge in Brunswick, Md., with Bill Peer and His Melody Boys. Using the middle name of Patterson for inspiration, she became Patsy Hensley before her first show in September 1952. She was 20 years old.

Here in this Frederick County rail hub every Saturday night through 1955, Patsy belted out her renditions of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," and Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose" for $50 per performance. She was able to quit at Gaunt's.

"I can see her now, with her boots, and her skirt with the fringes on it, and she always wore her cowboy hat, but it was always hangin' on the back of her hair, y' know?" recalls Erma Merriman, 67, who worked at the Moose Lodge in the 1950s and who remains a Brunswick resident. "And whenever she'd sing and go to hit those high notes, that head went up. She just opened her mouth and it just rolled out. It just come natural with her."

The Moose Lodge is still there, a squat, inconspicuous building on East Potomac Street in this picturesque little town nestled in steep hills that front the Potomac River. A framed, autographed photo of her hangs in a corner of the bar area. Her memory lives on for a handful of members and area residents who shared the bloom of their young adulthood there with her.

"She told us her mother made all her clothes," says Phyllis Thompson, 59, a Brunswick resident who joined the Moose Lodge in 1953. "I got to know Patsy pretty well. We'd always sit at that very first table, up by where the jukebox is now. At intermission, Patsy would always come up and talk to us. Her speech was always very hillbillyish when she talked to you, but when she sang, she didn't sound like that. . . . She wasn't a sophisticated person. Very salt of the earth."

Her songs are on the jukebox here, and when the regulars talk about her, it's as if she were standing right there on that stage.

Marion Burns, 81, a longtime Brunswick resident, was the governor -- director -- of the Moose Lodge during the early 1950s.

"Bill Peer played here before she did," he recalls. "Bill brought her here . . . and Bill said, 'I got this girl singer I'm gonna let sing with me a little bit tonight. Is that OK?' I said, 'I ain't bothered.'

"When she first came here, she had her songs wrote down in a book. Had this little book she'd read the words out of. I'm an ol' country boy myself, and I love country music. I'd ask her to sing a song, and she'd say, 'I never heard that one yet, but I'll learn it!' "

Brunswick native Ray Lucas, 74, and his circle of friends were regulars at the Saturday-night shows. Patsy cultivated a following, he says.

"You would have to come early and reserve a seat here at the Moose Lodge, because this place would be packed full."

With her Saturdays booked in Brunswick, during the week Patsy sang wherever her growing regional fame took her -- from rough-and-tumble road houses to community centers.

"Later, Bill Peer got some bookings down in Washington, D.C., at this place called Strick's, that was rough," remembers Betty Lou (Darr) Cavalier-Ambrose, 62. The singer sometimes spent the night at Ms. Cavalier-Ambrose's home after Moose Lodge shows.

"Anyway, Patsy and my mother were real close. She called my mother 'Mom Darr.' And Patsy checked with my mother, and she said, 'Mom, will you go down to Strick's with us? We'll stop by and pick you up.'

Bill and the band drove down and picked up my mother, and Mother went along, just as sort of a mother image for Patsy, because Patsy didn't like to entertain in a rough place like that.

"And Patsy'd come down [to Brunswick], and she'd have her pink curlers in her hair -- she had lovely long hair. And she'd drive down, and on the way down [to Washington] she'd take the curlers out and fluff up her hair, and she'd walk into Strick's lookin' like 3 million dollars!"

The late Bill Peer invested time and money -- and many say, his heart -- in nurturing Patsy Hensley's early career.

His son, Larry, 49, of Berryville, Va., says, "I can remember Patsy comin' to our house when I was 10 or 11. Sometimes she'd stay. She was determined [to make it] even if she did have to step on some toes and break some hearts to get there."

But at that time, stardom seemed a galaxy away.

Regional inroads

At least she could make her way out of Kent Street.

On March 5, 1953, the name Patsy Cline was first recorded -- in the files of the Frederick County Courthouse. Six months before her 21st birthday, she married Gerald Cline, the fun-loving scion of a high-class family living in Frederick, Md. She for the first time, he for the second, walked down the aisle on March 7 in the Evangelical Reformed Church at 15 W. Church St.

The Clines moved into his family's mansion, one of the finest homes in the area in 1953, at 436 E. Patrick St. (It's now gone.) But the newlyweds wanted their own space and in 1954 moved to a second-floor duplex at 824 E. Patrick St. that still exists.

Before long, her career took off. Patsy became a regional star for Connie B. Gay and his "Town and Country Time" radio and television empire. His radio station, WARL, at 5232 Lee Highway in Arlington, Va., the area's first all-country station, played a mix of recorded and live music. By 1956, Gay also had established a daily, 15-minute TV show on Channel 7 and a three-hour live Saturday-night hoedown. "Town and Country Time" was watched from Baltimore to Harrisonburg, Va. At the program's peak, it reached 40 television stations in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Soon Gay had Cline singing in Washington at Turner Hall (also known as the Capitol Arena) at 14th and W Streets N.W. (long gone), and at the Channel 7 building on Connecticut Avenue at Van Ness (now a shopping center).

Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean and Roy Clark, all eventual legends in the country music business, were then newcomers, happy to appear seven days a week on television and radio and make appearances in towns from Hagerstown (Washington County) to Richmond, Va.

Next stop, Nashville

In the heady days beginning in 1957, it looked like her hard work might pay off.

On the night of Jan. 21, she hit the jackpot on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." Decked in a conservative party dress, singing "Walkin' After Midnight," she won the TV show's singing competition.

But the road to the Grand Ole Opry got steeper. Gay changed th focus of his business, ending "Town and Country Time." And Cline's marriage, which had been deteriorating, ended in divorce.

She met a Winchester neighbor, Charlie Dick, a high-school dropout like herself and a Linotype operator at the Winchester Star. They hooked up at a dance at the Berryville Armory and married on Sept. 15, 1957.

The couple found a house down the street from"Mom" Hensley in winchester but soon Charlie was drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Bragg, N.C. Daughter Julie was born on Aug. 26, 1958.

Having mother across the street to baby-sit, Patsy Cline (she retained that professional name) hit the circuit in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. One-night stands at clubs, lodges and fire halls resumed. At drive-ins, as day turned to dusk, Patsy Cline in a cowgirl outfit jumped on the back of a flatbed truck and belted out new country tunes before the show started.

In February 1959, Charlie Dick came home from the Army. Patsy was 26 and felt she had one chance left to try to make it big. The family moved to Nashville, where the struggle would continue. In January 1961, Patsy gave birth to her second child, a son named Randy. In April 1961 the family was about to be tossed out of another rental unit and have their refrigerator repossessed when "I Fall to Pieces" entered the charts. It hit No. 1 in August.

A year and a half of fame and fortune followed.

Cline appeared in Las Vegas. The princess of Persia and the New York Times hailed her appearance at Carnegie Hall. She was named favorite female vocalist of the year by Billboard magazine and made hit record after hit record. She became a favorite at the Grand Ole Opry -- fulfilling a dream she'd expressed since her teen-age years in Winchester.

She didn't stop around her old haunts much after she became celebrity. But she sang a time or two in Brunswick, and sent cards to Mom Darr and other friends, her longtime fans say.

Then came the crash.

'He cried so hard'

On a cold Sunday in March three decades ago, thousands of fans from miles around lined up to pay their respects as Patsy Cline was buried. These fans, on three days' notice, did not come from Nashville or New York. Honorary pallbearers Roy Acuff and Arthur Godfrey did not attend. No, these thousands remembered her from her days on television and radio, from appearances in Elkton, Va., Brunswick, Frederick -- the length and breadth of Patsy Cline Country.

"Never ever would you see anything bigger," Ms. Merriman says. "We went up to the cemetery. They had her mother, her husband, and they were both holdin' one of the children, because they were both little things. I felt so sorry for him [Charlie Dick]. He just buried his head in the back of his little child's head and he cried so hard."

The grave, marked Virginia H. Dick, can be found in Shenandoah Memorial Park, off Route 522 -- the Patsy Cline Memorial Highway -- south and east of Winchester. Drive in, turn right and look under the second tree.

'Every record she ever made'

"She never forgot her roots, she never forgot where she came from, and she never tried to be more than what she was," says Erma Merriman.

And in this region she first called home, those who knew Patsy Cline and those who were touched by her shadow will never forget her. Today, in Winchester, a visitor can find a map to Patsy Cline "landmarks." And in Brunswick last winter, the Moose Lodge planned a Patsy Cline night, but a snowstorm kept away many of the old-timers. Out west, they still feel the heartache in her hits, "Faded Love," "So Wrong" and "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray."

"I got every record she ever made, I think," says Winchester resident Bud Armel, former leader of the Kountry Krackers band, with which Patsy Cline briefly sang. "But I very seldom ever play anything around here because, I don't know, when I hear 'em do some of them numbers, it just raises the goose bumps. Really."

DOUGLAS GOMERY, a free-lance writer in Chevy Chase, has been researching Patsy Cline's life for four years. BOB ALLEN is a Baltimore-based free-lance writer who often reports on country music.

THE PICK OF PATSY

To hear excerpts of Patsy Cline's music, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6155 after you hear the greeting.

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