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Music

Patsy Cline: The Definitive Collection

Peter Su

Patsy Cline

The Definitive Collection

Label: MCA Nashville
US Release Date: 2004-06-22
UK Release Date: Available as import
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For those keeping score at home, this is the umpteenth compilation of Cline's songs. It's good, too, better than the standard Patsy Cline Story in more than just song selection. While that 1963 compilation, like too many of the ones that followed, made Cline safer and milder than she was, this new album (if only by its virtue of having 22 not 12 tracks) adds more songs like "Lovesick Blues", songs that show Cline had at least as much primal punch as countrypolitan smarts.

Besides just including 10 more songs, this new compilation gives a fairer picture of Cline's historical legacy. As much as Shania Twain's crossover success could be traced back to Cline's groundbreaking countrypolitan, Cline was also a singer of rare emotional power. Though the liner notes compare her to Billie Holiday, Cline was closer to Etta James on her best days out from under producer Owen Bradley's thumb and string players.

As gesture, I appreciate that all the songs here are the original studio versions, especially since that means we get the meatier original versions of "Walkin' after Midnight" and "A Poor Man's Roses (Or a Rich Man's Gold)". But as someone who "got" Patsy Cline's mythic stature only after a friend convinced me to try her Live at the Opry. For me, that album is preferable for all the reasons that live albums usually aren't: the singing, playing, and sound are all more ragged than the studio versions. But since Cline had a great natural voice that was done justice by the Opry's acoustics, her studio work pioneered a blend of streamlined ("homogenized", if you're into roots music) country pop stripped of its hillbilly roots. And as she was working with Grand Ole Opry pros with too much sense to play a 20-minute drum solo, the relative raggedness of the music gives a spontaneity whose welcome arrival is trumped by hearing Cline let loose emotionally as much as physically. Especially, I miss her matching Hank Williams lovelorn yodel for lovelorn yodel on "Lovesick Blues". Which isn't to say the studio version here isn't memorable; it's just that the live version is even better. As for "She's Got You", the stringed studio version here just doesn't indicate how much justice she could do the song live. Odd, but true: I'd rather that the compilers had included some live versions, if only as a marketing ploy to whet consumer curiosity and make us buy a full live album.

This isn't just a matter of personal preference, though: it's also about defining Cline's historical legacy. Without faulting the song selections themselves, including only their more polished versions posits Cline's achievement too one-sidedly in favor of countrypolitan pop than I'm comfortable with. From a corporate standpoint, her achievement was doubtless her groundbreaking pop, her demonstrating that what was technically country could also sell to city folks with no special affinity for twangy guitars or accents. From Cline's example, marketing executives realized that country stars who were pop enough could be more than superstars-within-the-genre like George Strait. By appealing to a national market that crossed regional and social demographics, they could be superstars-period like Garth Brooks.

But her artistic achievement was more complex than that. Rather than just making country acceptable to city tastes, Cline was also a singer of rare force. If her historical legacy indeed rests largely on her being a marketable bridge between town and country, other songs have an unmistakable power that needs no contextualization. Like Etta James cutting "At Last", Cline matched the dreamy balladry of "San Antonio Rose" with performances of feral sexiness. In addition to "Lovesick Blues", there's also the catch in her voice in "He Called Me Baby". She wasn't outlaw country (even if "Crazy" was written by Willie Nelson), but the best of her raw work was too fierce, primal, and timeless to be classified simply as being part of a (well-conceived and enjoyable) ploy to make rough country tastes acceptable to then-contemporary notions of acceptability and sophistication.

Of course, part of her appeal was exactly that her natural grit invigorated even her pop torch songs. Just like what Johnny Rotten did with Malcolm Machlaran's conception of a group called the "Sex Pistols", Cline infused countrypolitan pop with her own energy, her talents making genuine art from what otherwise might just have been Owen Bradley's keen but sugary marketing ploy. If this new collection isn't necessarily definitive, learning to live with it affords its own significant pleasures. I'm not going to argue with it, especially not with Live at the Opry still in print.

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