Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Crazy" / Patsy Cline

Confession time: I didn’t even know who Patsy Cline was until I saw the movie Sweet Dreams, that excellent biopic starring Jessica Lange. I know, buying her records after that was kinda like buying a Dalmatian puppy after seeing 101 Dalmatians. But in the long run, it doesn’t matter how you find the music, so long as you love it when you do.

I will add, in my defense, that Patsy Cline’s songs had entered my consciousness by osmosis way back when I was a little kid. There were a bunch of similar powerhouse female singers in the early 60s -- Teresa Brewer, Brenda Lee, the divine Skeeter Davis (her “End of the World” was one of my favorite tracks even before Herman’s Hermits covered it) – and I knew their songs even if I couldn’t tell you who sang which one.

Sitting through Sweet Dreams, I kept saying, to myself, “Wow, she sang that one too?” When you stop to think that Patsy only had six years to make her mark – she put out only three albums before that plane crash took her in 1963 – the quality of the output is incredible. It's no wonder that Patsy Cline gravitated into mainstream pop; country music alone wasn't big enough to hold her talent.

The compilation 12 Greatest Hits By Patsy Cline has been in constant rotation on my music player ever since. The confidence of her voice simply astounds me – the way she could fiddle with the beat, top a high note with perfect pitch, zoom in and out on volume (often on a single word), curl her voice around a phrase just so. Phrasing? Patsy had a instinct for phrasing nearly as good as Sinatra’s. Putting a song across? She was a born storyteller – an essential for any country music performer – who knew exactly when to quaver with emotion and when to bite off a lyric sarcastically. But here's the thing that, to me, really set Patsy Cline apart: Despite those incredible pipes, she never came across as a diva. Maybe that was a conscious decision, maybe it was just the kind of down-to-earth Kentucky gal she really was. Her delivery is so natural, relaxed, and unaffected, I find myself believing every word she sings.

We all know the song “Crazy”, of course – funnily enough, written by Willie Nelson, his first songwriting hit. Flavored more by jazz and pop than by country (that cocktail lounge piano twiddling around), it was a big crossover number for her in 1961. Willie didn’t write this song for Patsy, but it sure ended up in the right hands: who else could have done that swooping thing on the word “crazy”? And who else would have been smart enough to keep this song so light-hearted? Because if you listen to the lyrics, it’s a martyr’s song – she’s feeling blue, he’s left her for somebody new, she’s wondering what she did to lose him, she’s embarrassed that she ever thought she could keep him. “I’m crazy for trying / And crazy for crying / And I’m crazy for loving you.” A lesser singer would whine and moan; Patsy just sounds rueful and bemused, with a warm little chuckle in her voice. Even she knows he’s not worth it. And yet -- she can’t help it. That’s just how love is. I dunno why, I find this profound.

This is the same gal who goes out “Walkin’After Midnight,” obsessively visiting the spots where she used to hang with her ex-boyfriend; who finds it “Strange” that she’s still dreaming of the man who suddenly dumped her for another woman; who’s found a much better new boyfriend and still moons around wondering “Why Can’t He Be You?” Patsy Cline is the high priestess of hard-luck girls wearing their hearts on their sleeves, a girlfriend all of us can relate to when men let us down (as they inevitably do). But her genius is to keep the rhythms upbeat, her voice confidential and light, just an occasional note betraying a yodel of anguish.

Unlike Skeeter Davis, Patsy doesn’t think the world’s going to end because her feller left her. She’s bruised but brave, and she knows perfectly well that nothing she does will bring that louse back. Still, might as well sing about it . . . at least 'til the next heartache comes along.


Jeff said...

Probably from growing up in rural Michigan, I still can't listen to a Patsy Cline song without imagining it coming from a jukebox, punctuated by the crack of pool balls and scented by a freshly poured Pabst beer. Her voice seems ready made for a lonely small-town bar. I hope that this vivid association never leave me.

Julie said...

"I Fall To Pieces" is one of the greatest vocal performances ever recorded. It's up there with June Christy's "Something Cool" for me, and that's saying a lot.