Patsy Cline: The Heart of a Legend

Patsy Cline
The Heart of a Legend

This latest reshuffling of Patsy Cline‘s work consists of 22 songs on two CDs (which would have fit on a single disc). The first disc is 1995’s MCA Patsy Cline Sings Songs of Love paired with a Madacy disc especially compiled for this collection.

To the credit of the budget compilers, I prefer the Madacy selections to those from MCA. The MCA compilers, remembering the love theme of their disc (But weren’t all her songs more or less about love?), opt for a disproportionate amount of syrupy balladry.

The second disc at least has better helpings of heartbreak and narrative to balance out the (yet more) love songs. But the cumulative effect of the two discs still leans too much toward her polished countrypolitan pop and too far away from her swinging country and western cultural roots.

Since this is a release from the budget Madacy label, it was worth noting on the packing sticker that these are the original recordings. Indeed, these are the familiar studio favorites Cline fans will know, not live or outtake versions.

Usually, this would be a good thing.

But as someone introduced to Cline via her Live at the Opry, I wish (not almost wish, mind) that they had indeed cobbled together less polished live versions and, with requisite slick favorites like “I Fall to Pieces”, made a hapdash product of it all.

Her singing isn’t in doubt. Even when the first disc slathers one-too-many ballads after another, it’s not grating in large part because of the confident ease of the singing. Cline’s is a resonant, modulated voice that avoids the deliberate twang carried on by some of her country peers until Shania Twain. Likewise, as a gross oversimplification, a lot of the singers from the ’40s and ’50s sound, well, theatrical. Not in an unpleasant or even affected way, but Kate Smith’s singing sounds less like a “regular” speaking voice than Patsy Cline’s.

Instead, even with Owen Bradley’s strings swarming all around her, Cline still sings like the Everywoman of dreams, with the disarmingly, deceptively natural voice and phrasings that one would like to imagine is the democratic sound of an untrained singer simply singing from the heart.

Shirley Owens of the Shirelles had that gift and, maybe to a lesser extent, so did Patsy Cline. But Cline was selling to a conservative adult market as opposed to teenagers, so it’s no mean feat that Cline succeeded commercially as well as she did. But if it’s part and parcel of Cline’s legend that she helped spearhead into country the same classless universality that rock ‘n’ roll was simultaneously spearheading into mainstream pop, the part of the legend that goes untold here is that Cline could carry out her end of the revolution with an energy and sexiness comparable to those of the early rock pioneers. Here, “Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round” hints at how well Cline could sing from off a fast beat and the joyous abandon of good times, but I sure wish they’d included “Lonesome Blues”, which shows how much better Cline could sing from off a fast beat and the desperate abandon of bad times.

Instead, this album is intent to cement Cline’s legend within the pantheon of “safe” legends, throwbacks to a better, safer, quieter world. Instead of a legend unfolding parallel to those of Elvis and Little Richard, this collection places her closer to Bing Crosby, as an icon whose legend is founded on the safe warmth of both voice and subject matter. Incorrectly, this aligns Cline’s legend solely with the likes of the Great American Songbook and Norah Jones, as a civilized antidote to visceral rock for people who don’t listen to classical. Considering some Cline performances not included on these discs, the line between her and rockabilly is considerably more blurred.

There’s no wrong reason to listen to good music and — okay, I admit it — this is mostly good music. And at a bargain price, too. But you also owe it to yourself to check out Cline’s Live at the Opry, which slights balladry for balls and thus completes the legend they started telling here.