WINCHESTER, Va., September 5, 2013 — It’s official. Winchester loves Patsy Cline. It’s been some fifty years since the singer’s untimely death in a plane crash at age 30. But it took her Virginia hometown—about seventy-five miles northwest of Washington, D.C.—a good thirty of those years to start applauding her as a local daughter who made good.
The city’s evolving love affair with this now legendary crossover country artist continues to blossom in Apple Valley. A prime example is “Becoming Patsy Cline,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV), the valley’s prime repository of art, history and culture.
On view through February 2, 2014 and coinciding with the 81st anniversary of her birth this week on September 8, the new exhibition tells the story of Virginia Patterson Hensley, born into hardscrabble valley life in 1932. Against the odds, she rose above economic and family hardships to become a popular performer that many consider to be the most popular and influential female country singer in the history or recorded music.
Still popular today, her many hit songs include “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy,” “Sweet Dreams,” and “I Fall to Pieces.” The current MSV visit fills you in on Patsy Cline’s intriguing backstory.
Cline’s Life and Career
Glancing at a map of the Winchester region, it’s easy to pick out the many valley towns the Hensley family lived in during the first 16 years of Virginia’s life. Winchester, however, is not far from where she was born and it’s where her family permanently settled when she was eight. She attended school there as well, at least for a time, before she was forced to drop out of eighth grade to help her mother take care of the family when her father deserted the family in 1947.
Young Virginia worked odd jobs in Winchester to help out with the family finances. But, after singing with her mother in church for many years, she also discovered she had a fine voice and reputedly had the rare gift of perfect pitch as well. So it’s not surprising that she longed to do a little singing her self.
She ultimately persuaded a local bandleader and radio DJ, Jim McCoy, to let him sing with his ensemble on his radio show in 1947. Proving an almost instant hit, she was asked back, leading to several local club engagements. In 1953 she married (but later divorced) a local contractor named Gerald Cline, adopting his last name and changing her first name to “Patsy” in honor of her mother’s maiden name of Patterson.
Cline continued to appear on radio, too, attracting even greater attention when she appeared in 1954 on the popular “Town and Country” radio show first aired by D.C.-area radio channel WARL-AM and later by WMAL-FM. It was hosted by a Texas transplant and then-Virginia resident named Jimmy Dean who was also a country singer and bandleader in his own right.
Her appearances on Dean’s show gained her broader attention up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Eventually, both artists’ careers took off, with Dean hosting his own nationally televised variety show.
Cline gravitated toward Nashville where she appeared at the Grand Old Opry, eventually recording her first record album. But her career really took off after she appeared on the wildly popular TV program “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” on January 21, 1957.
Her debut on that show was followed by appearances on Godfrey’s radio show as well, all of which propelled her to national prominence. Ultimately, she recorded 102 songs, three albums, gained a star on Hollywood Boulevard and her own U.S. Postal Service stamp. Her recordings have sold in the millions.
Unfortunately, Cline’s career came to an abrupt end when she was killed in a plane crash in 1963.
Her tragic death drew plenty of mourners to Winchester to pay their respects, observes Douglas Gomery, author of “Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon.” But, he notes, coverage in the local media was not particularly sympathetic.
“There were two kinds of people that the elites in Winchester didn’t mix with,” Gomery says. “Poor white trash and African-Americans. And she was seen as poor white trash.”
But that was 1963 and times change. Winchester has grown and changed along with them, and now functions in many ways as Washington’s westernmost Virginia suburb. It is also home to a major hospital center and numerous small industries as well as an increasingly cosmopolitan attitude toward life.
As a result, at least since the late 1980s, Winchester has championed the life and musical achievements of its most notable female entertainer.
“She’s really the valley’s greatest cultural icon, and we want people to understand what that means through this new show,” said MSV exhibition manager Corwyn Garman. Stonewall Jackson may be more often identified with the valley, he added, but Patsy deserves valley fame more. Her family’s valley roots go back centuries.
“People like Jackson and George Washington made some impact here, but they weren’t from the valley and didn’t spend most of their lives here. She did,” said Corwyn Garman.
In addition to material on Patsy Cline’s life, other portions of the museum’s current exhibit shed light on some of the people whose support and guidance helped Patsy hit her stride in the music industry.
A visual centerpiece of the exhibit is the lavish display of Patsy’s trademark cowgirl outfits and dresses as well as the well-used Singer sewing machine her mother Hilda used to make most of them.
Childhood memories on the other side of town
On another side of Winchester—the side that was looked down upon by many residents in the 1950s when Patsy was struggling to make it—visitors can discover more of her story by visiting The Patsy Cline Historic House, a converted 1840s-era tin-roofed log cabin located at 608 South Kent.
Restored, refurnished and opened to the public just a couple of years ago by the Celebrating Patsy Cline group, the house offers intimate glimpses into the singer’s Winchester home life as a young girl and teen. A front walkway of bricks, inscribed with names of those who paid for the house renovation, attest to the regard they have for the artist.
Throughout the house, visitors can observe touchingly personal mementoes such as a self portrait Patsy inscribed to her mother, noting “We made it,” and a sewing machine similar to the one her mother used to make clothes for rich folks during her long, working life as a highly-regarded professional seamstress.
A personal tour by Patsy Cline’s brother-in-law
The little house on South Kent didn’t have indoor plumbing or cook stove when the Hensleys moved in. But the considerable monetary rewards of Cline’s brilliant career funded numerous upgrades to the dwelling in the late 1950s, just before the singer relocated to Nashville with her second husband, Charlie Dick.
If you’re lucky, you’ll actually encounter Cline’s brother-in-law Melvin Dick when you visit the house. That’s because he occasionally gives house tours as well as his own personal opinions about how the town treated Patsy back in the day.
“There were people here who didn’t think much of a young lady who sang every Friday and Saturday nights in beer halls,” said Dick. Answering another visitor question about part of the new MSV exhibit, which alleges Patsy, had a disastrous affair with one of her mentors, Bill Peer, Dick waxed indignant. “If she had had all the affairs some say she did, she wouldn’t have had time to sing!”
Besides touring the family house, Celebrating Patsy Cline recommends visitors complete their pilgrimage by stopping at other places associated with her life, including Handley High School where she attended classes, and her final resting place in nearby Shenandoah Memorial Park.
(Below: Patsy Cline singing “Crazy” on show sponsored by “Pet Milk TV,” 1962. Click in lower right when video plays to bypass the ad.)
Additional Patsy Cline happenings
Upcoming programs related to the “Becoming Patsy Cline” exhibit include these dates. For a complete listing, visit their website at www.theMSV.org.
Here are September and October highlights. Consult the website for more details.
Friday, September 13: Gardens at Night: Robbie Limon Band
1970s hits from the band and free kid activities from 6 to 8 p. m. BBQ, pizza and wine for sale. The exhibit will be open for tour from 6 to 8:30.
Saturday, September 14: Patsy Pop Art
Participants will tour the exhibit and learn about pop culture, pop art and Patsy Cline’s connections to both.
Saturday, September 21: Patsy Cline Lecture
Country music history authority Paul Kingsbury will present “Patsy Cline’s Search for a Hit Sound.” Tickets: $20-$25.
Saturday, October 19: Plain and Fancy Needlework
Examine needlework by Patsy’s mother, Hilda Hensley and make your own in this needlework workshop about embroidery technique. Tickets: $40-$45.
901 Amherst St.
Winchester, VA 22601
Read more of Ruth Hill’s columns in the Washington Times Communities at Contemporary Christian Travel.
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