'Sweet Dreams' of Winchester

Memories of Patsy Cline linger in the Shenandoah Valley town the singer called home

Virginia

Cover Story

April 13, 2003|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

Her grave is a simple one -- a bronze plaque with a name and an epitaph: "Death cannot kill what never dies." On a cold, bright day in March 40 years after her death, it is clear that something does live on, as a crowd of 50 gathers to heap the marker with flowers.

"People come and leave things all the time -- bouquets, letters, scraps of paper with song lyrics, sometimes objects that symbolize the song titles: three cigarettes in an ashtray, say. A lot of times they leave money, thinking that there really ought to be a monument here. At least we got the bell tower," says J.D. Thompson, treasurer of the Always Patsy Cline Fan Club.

Thompson gestures toward a simple structure visible from Route 522, the road that runs by Shenandoah Memorial Park into Winchester.

A town of 24,000 people, Winchester has a lovely location in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Founded in 1752, it is said to be the oldest chartered city west of the Blue Ridge. Though it lies at the top of the Shenandoah Valley, about a 90-minute drive west of Baltimore, its grand public buildings and reno- vated downtown district have a refined Southern feel.

And in addition to its historic and architectural charms, Winchester offers visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the life of singer Patsy Cline. It's no Graceland or Dollywood -- but a quieter, closer experience of the settings and stories of a fascinating woman.

Patsy Cline, born Virginia Patterson Hensley (Cline was her first husband's name), worked her way up from the wrong side of the tracks here to spend three years at the beginning of the 1960s as a top star. On March 5, 1963, a plane crash left her fans, her family and her friends with only the memory of this vibrant woman, then 30 years old, and the recordings of her songs. But the vitality of those recordings has made her a legend.

"Crazy," penned by a young Willie Nelson, "Walking After Midnight," "I Fall To Pieces" and, recorded just weeks before her death, "Sweet Dreams" are the songs she is most remembered for. Her vocal style was perhaps best described by the singer herself: "trouble and honey."

Wrapping a world of female feeling in velvety tones and elegantly enunciated lyrics, she sounds more like the great blues and jazz singers than the country stars she lived and died among. But no one could tell Patsy Cline she was not a country singer. And no one could tell her that Winchester, Va., was not country.

"This town saw itself as a pinkie-out, swing band, dry martini kind of place," explains tour guide Judy Sue Kempf, a former Miss Apple Blossom and a one-time banker who made a career of her passion for Patsy after a series of gunpoint robberies made her reconsider the banking profession.

"Patsy Cline was not their kind of person," Kempf says. "She was born in a farmhouse 15 miles outside of town. She dropped out of high school to support her mom and siblings by working at a chicken factory and a drug store. She cursed like a sailor, she walked around town in shorts and rollers, and on stage, she dressed and used her gorgeous figure to its full advantage. I think of her as the Madonna of the '50s -- outspoken, opinionated, bossy, sexy, a working mom, for that matter -- and many people around here couldn't handle it."

But that didn't stop Patsy. "She was a goodwill ambassador for this town. Every time she got up on stage, she introduced herself as 'Patsy Cline from Winchester, Va.' " says Jim Knicely, an old-timer in the country music business who grew up with Patsy and her second husband and widower, Charlie Dick. Knicely spoke at the recent graveside memorial service held to commemorate the anniversary of her death.

"This town has always been divided on the subject of Patsy," added his wife, Janet, after the ceremony. Janet Knicely remembers sitting in a folding chair in the live audience for Patsy's early broadcasts on the local radio station and watching her in talent shows at the Palace Theater. "There are those of us who always loved her, and those who thought she was brassy and low-class. When this generation dies out, she will soar."

Apples and history

If her popularity grows -- a recent study funded by Winchester estimates that a Patsy Cline museum could draw as many as 20,000 visitors a year -- visitors making their way to Patsy's hometown may meet up with those on another kind of pilgrimage.

The town's starring role in American military history has long made it a destination for history buffs. George Washington located his headquarters in Winchester during the French and Indian War, and both Stonewall Jackson and Union Gen. Philip Sheridan set up command posts here during the Civil War. The town changed hands 72 times during that conflict -- 13 times on a single day -- and five battles were fought in the city and surrounding Frederick County. Confederate and Union burial grounds, each with thousands of graves, lie across the street from one another.

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