Updated: Sep 11
The dusty cowboy trails, and hard knock living may have been the origins of the infamous honky tonks, but the music really came into its own under the city lights, and concrete sidewalks of suburban living. Many of our families moved away from farming, and the rural life for union wages, and a subdivided plot with a white picket fence, and a two car garage. The American dream..
As discussed in the Honky Tonkin' Couture installment, fringe, and cowboy hats gave way to Nudie Suits, and rhinestones. There was expendable income now, and hard working folks wanted to go out, and have a big time. Who wouldn't want to cut a little rug, drink a cold drink in a frosty mug, and then some..Still the case, I mean why work so hard, if you don't have the weekend or some designated day to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
As hillbilly music made inroads into the major cities it along with its listeners had to grow, and adapt to its new surroundings, and that it did. The honky tonk sound smoothed out the rough edges of hillbilly music, it added an electrified sound, in some instances a wailing steel guitar, and for the finishing touches a Lefty Frizzell melismatic emotive vocal delivery to seal the deal.
Women had already made some successful forays into the fold in this new traditional country music as shared on The Pioneering Chicks piece. But arguably, it was Patsy Cline's bluesy soulful vocal power that resonated with broken hearts across America, and beyond. Though many look at Patsy as the ultimate countrypolitan icon, in the 50's Patsy could be found at the Rainbow In as the resident chick singer in the Sonny Fry, and The Playboys Band. The club was a dive famous for ham sandwiches, cold beer, and live music. Patsy was never given billing as evidenced in the ads below. However, it was a good place to get started, and hone her craft.
Patsy became an instant hit, but had her eyes squarely on Nashville. By now, she was 19, and was introduced to Bill Peer, who's band the Melody Boys were very popular, and supported major touring acts as they came through the area. Though he was never given proper credit, Bill poured into Patsy, perfecting her vocal style, and stage presence. As a honky tonk performer in his band, she received $10.00 per show which was every Saturday at The Moose Lodge in Brunswick, Maryland. She cut her teeth performing there for three years!
Bill Peer scored an audition for Patsy at the Grand Ole Opry with none other than Ernest Tubb. On the first evening they attended the Opry, Elvis Presley made his debut, and was booed off the stage. Ernest Tubb consoled Elvis who was in tears.Patsy liked Elvis.
Bill Peer & Patsy Cline
Ernest Tubb & Elvis
Patsy sang two songs at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop that night. After that evening, Patsy went back to Virginia, and continued to perform at small honky tonk clubs throughout the region.
William A. McCall's California label 4 Star was the first record label to record Patsy, and licensed her recordings to Decca Records.
On June 1, 1955, Patsy had one of her first recording sessions w/ Decca. Owen Bradley was the producer, and his brother Harold was on acoustic guitar. Here is one of the first singles that really shows off Patsy's early penchant for traditional country music.
Very few performers could hold a candle to Patsy live. Loretta Lynn once quipped how Patsy could get everyone on their feet. She danced with the lively songs, and sometimes cried with the sad ones. It took her awhile to become a star mostly due to the restrictive deal signed with 4 Star.
4 Star's contract stipulated that Patsy record songs written by their writers. And quite frankly, the majority of the songs just weren't that great.. Not even Patsy's undeniable vocal awesomeness could breathe life into some of those songs.
Patsy's first hit came with "Walking After Midnight" It reached #2 on the country charts, and #12 on the pop charts. But she was unable to capitalize on the momentum failing to have any other hits until 1960 when she finally signed with Decca Records. Patsy only had one album chart on Billboard in her lifetime. That album was Patsy Cline Showcase in 1962.
Like Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline was the first to do things..For example, Patsy Cline was the first female country artist to crossover to pop. She was also the first female country artist to headline in Las Vegas. She was also the first solo female artist to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Additionally, Patsy was the first female in country music to perform at Carnegie Hall.She was also the first woman to perform in pants at the Grand Ole Opry. Patsy's accomplishments, and legacy are too numerous to mention. She was a hard woman with a single minded determination at a time when such traits were unheard of in a woman..
She earned a reputation for being hard to work with, but fiercely loyal to her friends. She once turned down recording a song because Roy Clark wanted to record it. She worked with Roy on The Town, and Country Time Show based in Washington, D.C. but was ultimately fired for showing up late with liquor on her breath.
I would strongly encourage y'all to read "Honky Tonk Angel."and The Life, and Times of Patsy Cline The book details some of the unfortunate aspects of Patsy's life. We need to remember, we are all just human, and sometimes people make not-so-great decisions. One thing is for sure, Patsy certainly lived the honky tonk life, especially early on. But she did blossom into a great wife, and mother..By all accounts those were two roles she enjoyed greatly.
Yes, Patsy could be tough, and hard-drinking at times.. She rose up through the ranks singing in hole-in-the-wall honky tonks, sometimes for free. She sang her way to stardom with a lot of help from people who believed in her. I've read some questionable stories about Patsy, and get the impression that there was much jealousy from the women that wanted to be her, and the men that could not have her.. Her songs often mirrored what was going ons in her own life. And many may not know, that early on, she wrote some of her own songs like ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me Again’ and ‘A Stranger In My Arms.
She was truly the first bonafide honky tonk queen.
In our next installment, we will turn the spotlight on Tammy Wynette. A tragic Honky Tonk Queen whose songs sometimes paled in comparison to her own life..