Patsy Cline was tired, battling a cold and aching to see her kids when her plane crashed in Camden, Tenn., the rainy evening of March 5, 1963. Singer-songwriter Roger Miller, who was among the first to find the wreckage early the next morning, reported that the plane’s single engine lay at the bottom of a large crater, suggesting that the Piper Comanche had plunged to earth at full speed.
Dying with Cline that day were fellow Grand Ole Opry stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas and the plane’s pilot, Randy Hughes, who was also Cline’s manager and Copas’ son-in-law.
For two days, Cline had been trying to get back home to Nashville from Kansas City, Kan., where she had played three benefit shows on Sunday, March 3 to raise money for the family of popular disc jockey, “Cactus” Jack Call. He had died from injuries suffered in an auto accident in January. Because tickets for the event were not selling well, the promoter begged Hughes to add Cline to the lineup. On the bill with her were Hawkins, Copas, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, George Jones, Billy Walker and good friend Dottie West. Roy Acuff was scheduled to perform but cancelled at the last minute.
“I walked out and watched the shows,” West later told an interviewer for the video biography The Real Patsy Cline, “and I will never forget that gorgeous white chiffon dress she wore. I thought, ‘My God! She sings like an angel, and she looks like one.’ She was just beautiful. It seemed she sang so effortlessly. She just did it so easily. I remember that night that they just screamed and yelled when she did ‘Bill Bailey.’ She sang the fire out of it — like it had never been sung. She was really happy that day.”
In Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, biographer Ellis Nassour says Cline closed the last show with a set that included “She’s Got You,” “Heartaches,” “Am I a Fool,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.”
It rained the day of the show, West recalled, and continued the next day when Cline and the other performers met for breakfast. “She almost rode back in the car with [my husband] Bill and I. Randy kept going to the phone and calling the weather bureau, and there was no clearance for the flights. It was a really bad foggy rain.” Still hoping that the plane would get her home quicker than the Wests could, Cline ultimately turned down their offer of a ride.
Finally, in the early afternoon of Tuesday, March 5 with the rainstorm moving slowly ahead of them, Cline and her companions set off on the 500-mile trip to Nashville. That bad decision was made worse by the fact that Hughes had not been trained to fly by using instruments. Each time the weather became overwhelming, Hughes would set the plane down and wait to resume his flight.
The troupe’s last stop before the accident was in the town of Dyersburg in northwestern Tennessee. In spite of warnings from the airport manager there and his offer to loan the Opry stars his car, Hughes refueled the plane and took off again at 6:07 p.m. When Cline’s watch was recovered from the crash site, its hands, according to Nassour, had stopped at 6:20.
In the years since the tragedy, Cline’s reputation has grown so large that it has eclipsed the loss of Hawkins and Copas, both of whom made important contributions to country music. Copas, who replaced Eddy Arnold as lead vocalist for Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys, made his chart debut in 1946 with “Filipino Baby,” an old song retrofitted to apply to the just concluded World War II. He subsequently scored such hits as “Signed, Sealed and Delivered,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Candy Kisses,” “‘Tis Sweet to Be Remembered” and his only No. 1, “Alabam.”
Married to singer Jean Shepard at the time of his death, Hawkins could boast such standards as “Pan American,” “Hound Dog Boogie,” “I’m Waiting Just for You” and “Slow Poke.” The week before his death, he charted with the song that would become his biggest hit, “Lonesome 7-7203.” The song was still so new to him that he had to have someone hold up the lyrics for him when he sang it in his final show at Kansas City. It rose to No. 1 after his death and remained there for four weeks.
Cline, who achieved only two No. 1 hits in her career (“I Fall to Pieces” and “She’s Got You”), also had a new single on the charts when she died. It was “Leavin’ on Your Mind” which had chartered a month earlier and would go on to peak at No. 8.
Cline’s canonization by virtually all country music critics — even die-hard traditionalists — is a reminder that “going pop” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From her orchestral and choral backing to her generally urbane lyrics to her distinct and accent-free enunciation, she was a pop singer. Her country identification flowed more from her cowgirl costumes and Nashville base than it did her music. Like all great vocal stylists, she transcended category.
To commemorate the anniversary of the Camden crash, the Country Music Hall of Fame has mounted an exhibit that will remain open from March 5 through June 9. Among the items on display will be Cline’s cigarette lighter with the image of a Confederate flag on one side and a rebel soldier on the other; Hawkins’ white leather guitar strap with his name embossed in gold and decorated with rhinestones; Copas’ white felt western hat; and the clock from the doomed airplane. Except for Copas’ hat, all the artifacts were found at the crash site.
Last year, MCA Records — the descendant label of Decca, for which Cline recorded — produced a tribute album called Remembering Patsy. It features covers of songs Cline made famous by Martina McBride and Take 6, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Jessi Alexander, Michelle Branch, Amy Grant, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Griffin, Norah Jones, Rebecca Lynn Howard and K. D. Lang. MCA has not yet set a release date for the album.