The story below is an excerpt from our July/August 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Take a summer road trip into Virginia’s northern Shenandoah Valley and into the wilds of adjacent Hardy County, West Virginia.
I grew up listening to Patsy Cline, her at-once mournful and catchy melodies like “Crazy” and “I Fall To Pieces.” My mother played them often on the record player in the dining room, and, according to my grandmother, she played them in her bedroom in the small Minnesota farmhouse where she grew up as well. It’s easy to imagine a redheaded teenage girl in pedal pushers lazily sprawled across a bed absorbed in lovesick country songs.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why, on my northern Shenandoah Valley road trip, I make the simple and unassuming Patsy Cline House the centerpiece of my visit to the songstress’ hometown of Winchester, a city which has only recently begun to embrace this tragic country star.
Rocking in Winchester
Better known for its commitment to historic preservation as well as holding title as the nation’s apple capital, Winchester hosts an annual Apple Blossom Festival in May, and sports the world’s largest fireman’s parade.
Up until her death in 1963, Winchester native Patsy Cline rode in the parade even though she was never officially invited to participate. A driven, opinionated young woman prone to wearing pants and smoking cigarettes, Cline was never happily embraced by her hometown during her lifetime. But she often managed to finagle a spot in the parade anyway.
Born to a 16-year-old mother in 1932, Virginia Patterson Hensley, as she was named, moved 19 times in the first 16 years of her life, often thanks to the hapless nature of her once-bootlegger father. Cline’s mother, Hilda, an accomplished and hardworking seamstress, eventually struck out on her own with her three children, renting the house on Kent Street that is now open as a museum. Hilda engaged in everything from dressmaking to laundering and babysitting to help make ends meet.
Meanwhile, young Patsy imbibed her mother’s work ethic, quit school at age 16, and went to work herself, all the while practicing on the piano her mother had bought her eight years before, and looking for every opportunity she could to sing.
“She never learned to read music,” says Scott Simmons, a docent at the Patsy Cline Historic House. Rather, she learned to play by ear and received constant encouragement from Hilda, who also sewed most of Cline’s dresses and costumes even once she had become a star.
“The two were so close in age,” Simmons remarks. “They were more like sisters than mother and daughter.”
Cline, who finally gained national recognition when she appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1957, singing “Walkin’ After Midnight,” was responsible for developing what became known as the “Nashville Sound.” Her music topped both popular and country music charts. According to Simmons, she was the first crossover artist in American music history.
Her success as a working-class girl rising to stardom is spellbinding, but her personal life was often rocky. She married young, divorced, had a torrid love affair with her manager, then married again, happily at least, to Charlie Dick, three years her junior, in 1957. (You can, in fact, still visit the nostalgic department store where Dick bought his wedding suit—Bell’s on Loudoun Street!) But even as she rocketed to fame, her run was short-lived. In 1963, she died in a plane crash.
But lovers of her music can explore the often hardscrabble world that inspired her to work so hard at her craft, see the dresses her mother made for her, and stand in the bedroom she shared with her mother and siblings.
Next stop on this slightly nostalgic road trip is the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall downtown. This four-block renovation project cost Winchester $7.1 million. To fully experience downtown’s architectural heritage, I sign up for an Architectural Walking Tour at the downtown visitor center. In the summer, the mall hosts Friday Night Live concerts, and every first Friday of the month year-round, downtown shops stay open late.