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TERRY GROSS, host:

One of American popular music's great unknowns is what would've happened to Patsy Cline's career if it had lasted longer. She was poised to revolutionize the role of the solo female singer, as well as Nashville's place in the music business.

With the release of her complete Decca recordings, rock historian Ed Ward takes a look at a great talent.

(Soundbite of song, "Have You Ever Been Lonely")

Ms. PATSY CLINE (Musician): (Singing) Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever been blue? Have you ever loved someone, just as I love you? Can't you see that I'm sorry...

Mr. ED WARD (Rock Historian): Patsy Cline's career really only lasted three years and the complete recorded output from that career lasts two hours and 10 minutes but her importance is out of proportion to those numbers.

She was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932 to parents living in the hills of West Virginia, and was performing as a teenager under the name Ginnie Hensley. In 1953, she married Gerald Cline, a construction worker. A year later, she signed a contract with 4 Star Records, which was mostly a vehicle for recording songs from its owner's publishing house. 4 Star put out 18 songs of the 51 she cut for them, and only one charted.

(Soundbite of song, "Walking After Midnight")

Ms. CLINE: (Singing) I go out walkin' after midnight out in the moonlight, just like we used to do. I'm always walkin' after midnight, searching for you. I walk for miles along the highway...

Mr. WARD: The recording is actually a remake of the original, which, like all her other 4 Star records, was hard-core country. These recordings were made at the famous Nashville studio, Bradley's Barn, where Decca's country recordings were made. The minute her 4 Star contract expired in 1960, she signed with Decca, and Bradley saw a chance to record a great pop talent. For her first record, he found a song by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, two of the best writers in town.

(Soundbite of song, "I Fall To Pieces")

Ms. CLINE: (Singing) I fall to pieces each time I see you again. I fall to pieces. How can I be just your friend? You want me to act like we've never kissed. You want me to forget, pretend we've never met. And I've tried and I've tried, but I haven't yet. You walk by and I fall to pieces.

Mr. WARD: The instrumentation, which included steel guitar by Ben Keith, who later worked with Neil Young, was country, but her phrasing definitely wasn't. The song shot to number one on the country charts early in 1961 and got to number 12 on the pop charts. Bradley's intuition was correct, so he started looking for jazzier numbers from his songwriting acquaintances. A young Texan friend of Cochran's came up with one and this did even better.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy")

Ms. CLINE: (Singing) Crazy, I'm crazy for feeling so lonely. I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue. I knew you'd love me as long as you wanted. And then someday you'd leave me for somebody new. Worry...

Mr. WARD: Until "Crazy" hit number one in the country charts and number nine on the pop charts, Willie Nelson was considered a bit too eccentric for Nashville's tastes, but the song established him and his career took off.

Patsy, though, was faced with a problem. She'd joined "The Grand Ole Opry" and seems to have been a bit freaked out by her pop success. She'd originally resisted recording "Crazy," and yet her renditions of Hank Williams' and Bob Wills' songs sound odd because the way she sings them is so pop. She found herself performing at Carnegie Hall and co-headlining the Hollywood Bowl with Johnny Cash. In 1962, she became the first female country performer to headline in Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of song, "So Wrong")

Ms. CLINE: (Singing) I've been so wrong, for so long. Thought I could live without the love that you give. I was wrong, oh, so wrong. I've been so wrong...

Mr. WARD: By the time "So Wrong," co-written by Carl Perkins, hit the charts in the summer of 1962, she'd earned enough money to buy a nice house for herself, her husband, Charlie Dick, and her two kids. And her manager, Randy Hughes, bought a small plane so she could get around quicker and spend more time at home. Clearly a change was coming.

In March, 1963, even though Patsy had the flu, they flew to Kansas City to do a benefit with a half-dozen other country stars for the family of DJ Cactus Jack Call, who'd just died in an automobile accident. After the show, she and two of the other performers, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, got in the plane although Dottie West offered to drive her home.

Don't worry about me, Hoss, she told West. When it's my time to go, it's my time. The plane was delayed a day by bad weather, then only made it as far as Dyersburg, Tennessee. Late the next day they took off, ran into bad weather, and minutes later crashed into a hill. All on board were killed.

Patsy Cline's last sessions show a woman coming to terms with pop music, as well as a voice that was learning to navigate some tricky directions. She never had the chance to make the leap all the way, and left behind 41 songs that still hold up.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. He reviewed "Patsy Cline Sweet Dream: The Complete Decca Studio Masters 1960-1963."

Our Country Music Week continues tomorrow. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Back in Baby's Arms")

Ms. CLINE: (Singing) I'm back in baby's arms, how I missed those loving arms...

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