Patsy's People

December 12, 1993|By Douglas Gomery and Bob Allen

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."

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