Wide Angle

What Today’s America Could Learn From Patsy Cline

The story of the country music trailblazer and her hometown defies the simplistic narratives we tell about rural Southern whites.

Patsy Cline leaning forward with her chin on her hand.
Patsy Cline
RB/Redferns

In 1938, when Patsy Cline was 5 years old and not far removed from her earliest years in a shack on the Shenandoah River without plumbing or electricity, the federal Report on the Economic Conditions of the South identified the region as “a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death.” The report cited a per capita income only half the national average, as well as the nation’s lowest industrial wages, personal assets, farm income, and many other negative markers. “The nation’s No. 1 economic problem” is how President Franklin Roosevelt referred to Cline’s family and other poor Southerners. She was still Virginia Patterson Hensley then, still went by Ginny, and she had yet to even hear recorded music.

Today, Cline’s people writ large are staring down a grim reality once again. Rural Americans are more likely than those who live in cities to be old, poor, ill, and without health insurance. While white Americans still have lower mortality rates than black Americans, theirs have stayed fairly flat while those of Hispanic and black Americans have plummeted. And, as the indispensable Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast documents, regions with large rural white populations are now afflicted with a softer threat: reporters, scholars, sociologists, economists, documentarians, photojournalists, arts nonprofits, J.D. Vance enthusiasts, whoever, coming to gawk at and know the white working class, the phrase of the moment. Even if they don’t come bearing an agenda, their reports are grim. Rural white people are literally dying off, often through “deaths of despair,” including suicide and untreated substance abuse.

The cover of John Lingan's book Homeplace.
Houghton Mifflin

Eighty years ago, Roosevelt followed his words with an unprecedented investment in the Southern economy, one that transformed the region so thoroughly, at least for white people, that it merited rebranding: the New South. It goes without saying that material help for today’s rural Southern working class, black and white and otherwise, isn’t likely to come from our current administration or the Republicans who control so many rural state houses. So Democrats, including cultural gatekeepers, need to find other ways to speak to this population. They should listen to and tell the stories of people like Patsy Cline: a feisty, vulgar, operatic alto who made it from a riverbank to the Grand Ole Opry, then ascended all the way to global icon. For now, until policy catches up, maybe that’s one way to inspire the next young wave of Patsy Clines, those poor kids who might beat bad odds if they have the right hero.

By 1948, when Cline was 16, New Deal investment had modernized the South’s roads, bridges, and buildings, and established new public works megaprojects like the Tennessee Valley Authority. A greater number of doctors and hospitals served the region, leading to lower infant mortality rates and better health outcomes overall. Cline’s family, for one, had long left the river behind. They had enough money to relocate back to the town where she was born, Winchester, Virginia, and buy a house on South Kent Street, by the train tracks. Things were still precarious. Cline had to drop out of Handley High School almost immediately to work on her family’s behalf in a long march of unglamorous hourly jobs. But they had plumbing and heating, a real address in a real city, and a home base from which Patsy could launch the singing career that she now dreamed of.

For 10 years, she sang at an endless succession of low-lit highway social halls in dark corners of Maryland and the Virginias, often outfitted in a red-and-white fringed cowgirl suit that her mom sewed at home. Her hometown was not supportive. In 1957 she performed a new single, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” to win the nationally broadcast TV show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Winchester’s ruling class—the doctors, landowners, and lawyers who had held sway over the town since its colonial origins—couldn’t have cared less. They gave Patsy’s national breakthrough scant notice in the daily paper, even spelling her name wrong. They were similarly dismissive when she performed at Carnegie Hall, and when she died tragically at age 30, they mocked her heavily attended Winchester funeral as resembling “a mob scene … like ‘dollar day’ at the department store.”

She was the least famous of the three country stars who died on that plane, but her star was on the steepest upward trajectory. Her sudden early death solidified reverential treatment for her posthumously released music like “She’s Got You,” which quickly followed her biggest hit yet, “Crazy.” By the 1970s, Winchester was connected to other regions from New York down to Nashville through I-81. It had a booming produce industry thanks to local apple magnate and U.S. Sen. Harry Flood Byrd. And the New South’s business-first mindset had brought in industry from all corners of the country. In the decades following her death, Patsy’s people were ascendant: Winchester’s white laborers and cleaners, people who proudly traced their family land to the hilly folds of the surrounding valley, became homeowners, businesspeople, parents to first-generation college students, even mayor. And through it all, Patsy was their North Star, their proof that a Kent Street girl could be globally recognized.

In 2011, her first South Kent Street address—the longest she had held in her life—became a historic house operated by a nonprofit expressly dedicated to growing Patsy’s memory. The house is decorated with artifacts from the time, and many the singer actually owned. The same year, Handley High School renamed their new theater in her honor, and Willie Nelson, writer of “Crazy,” played the grand opening concert.

This was all nearly 50 years after Cline’s tragic early death by plane crash, and decades after her enshrinement as a national icon—the first solo female inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, recipient of a postage stamp and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the subject of biographies and biopics and tribute shows. Before the Patsy Cline Historic House and the auditorium, this cozy Colonial town in western Virginia paid almost no mind to its most famous daughter. It took a genuine transformation, the empowerment of a real middle class in a one-time oligarchy, to bring their truest folk hero to the fore of local consciousness.

“It’s almost like we gained a conscience,” a woman named Anita told me. Anita was raised in the farmland just outside Winchester city limits, a typical Frederick County existence for the time, including occasional trips to roadhouses with her aunt and uncle, where she watched young Patsy Cline on her uncle’s knee. Patsy was so much more glamorous than other women of the time, she remembers. She had such burning purpose. Anita went to college, married a lawyer, raised three girls in Winchester, and joined the city’s school board. Now comfortably near the top of the Winchester social set, she carries those roadhouse memories into the town’s very infrastructure. Many others have done the same. And they feel a moral calling to honor Patsy from their new perch.

Country music has always been a kind of cultural direct line to the rural white population, and one thing it teaches is the durability of that population’s heroes. In country music, there is a legacy status that can’t be undone, a canonization that few achieve but all aspire to and worship. Patsy is one of those: You will never hear a musician say a bad or judgmental thing about her. For the people who knew her personally, like Loretta Lynn or Willie Nelson, that connection is a part of their own origin story.

Politics were never a part of Patsy’s music per se, but in every context she was known for being forward-thinking and open-minded. She flouted Winchester’s smothering rules for female decorum by working and traveling with all-male bands. She wore slacks when women were expected to stick to dresses. Musically, she showed uncommon adventurousness as well, singing everything from yodels and cowboy tunes to gospel standards, mambos, and torch ballads. Her recordings exude buoyancy, friendliness, and all-revealing sadness; they are emotionally ambitious, even generous. Some, like “Always,” one of her signatures, are pleas of devotion. Others, like “I Fall to Pieces” or “Strange,” are about disintegration and hopelessness. They resist the simplicity of so many storylines surrounding rural people right now. They aren’t for racist diner patrons or Christian plutocrats. They’re aspirational, sung by a woman who came from nothing and still felt entitled to big feelings.

Look at the rising enthusiasm for Dolly Parton, whose career began shortly after Cline’s ended but whose childhood was just as dire. Parton still regularly records and performs, and while she isn’t always as progressive as liberals would like, she has become a kind of hillbilly Oprah: beloved entertainer, revered philanthropist, and an activist for children’s literacy and survivors of natural disasters. There are too many young people right now living a version of what Patsy and Dolly endured in their childhoods or worse, in rural areas and elsewhere, and it surely means a lot to see Parton handing out checks to wildfire victims or accepting awards from the Library of Congress. We should lift up Patsy, the woman who invented this archetype, as well. She’s an example that all Americans could afford to see more often.

Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk is out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.