A Look Behind the Death of Patsy Cline and Her Lasting Legacy Today

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

On March 5, 1963, country music lost one of its fastest rising stars and one of its most iconic voices when Patsy Cline died at the age of 30 in a plane crash while flying from a show in Kansas City, Missouri back home to Nashville.

The Early Years

Born Virginia Patterson Hensley on Sept. 8, 1932, in Winchester, Virginia, Cline got her first big hit in 1957 with “Walkin’ After Midnight,” written by Alan Block and Donn Hecht, and first performed by the singer on the CBS TV show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Cline ended up winning the televised song competition, and to keep the momentum of its popularity, Decca Records had Cline record it. The single peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Country and Western Sides chart. Soon after, Cline released her self-titled debut.

It would take a few more years before she got another hit, which she did in 1961 with “I Fall to Pieces,” which gave Cline her first No. 1 and appeared on her second release Patsy Cline Showcase, along with subsequent hit “Crazy,” written by a young Nashville songwriter by the name of Willie Nelson.

Patsy Cline’s self-titled debut, 1957

Her 1961 Car Crash

When Cline was 29, she was nearly killed when she and her brother Sam were involved in a car crash on June 14. The head-on collision threw Cline into the windshield and left her in the hospital with severe injuries for a month.

The Grand Ole Opry

Cline had already appeared as a guest on the Grand Ole Opry from the mid-1950s before joining as a regular cast member in January 1960. Just six months after her accident, Cline made her way back on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.

“Crazy”
Cline was using crutches when she went back to the studio to record “Crazy.” The song reached No. 2, and was followed by Cline’s next No. 1 hit “She’s Got You,” off Sentimentally Yours. In 1962, Cline earned two more hits, and the last ones within her lifetime, “When I Get Thru With You” and “So Wrong.”

Death

Flying home to Nashville on March 5, 1963, following a benefit concert in Kansas City, Missouri, in a plane piloted by her manager Randy Hughes, Cline along with country music artists Lloyd Estel “Cowboy” Copas, and Harold Franklin “Hawkshaw” Hawkins died in a plane crash near Camden, Tennessee, just 90 miles outside of Nashville.

Prior to the crash, Hughes landed the plane in Dyersburg, Tennessee to refuel and check the weather for their continued flight to Nashville. Hughes was informed by the FAA that there was low visibility and recommended they not continue. Hughes, who wasn’t “instrument-rated,” opted to continue the flight, relying on visibility and believing he could return to Dyersburg if the weather got worse. After taking off in poor visibility conditions, Hughes lost control of the plane, crashing into a wooded area, killing all four passengers inside.

Investigators ruled that the crash was caused by the “non-instrument-rated pilot’s decision to operate under visual flight rules in instrument meteorological conditions” (aka weather conditions that require pilots to use instruments.)

Cline was buried in Shenandoah Memorial Park just outside her hometown of Winchester.

Cline released one final single, “Leavin’ on Your Mind,” in January of 1963 and scored hits with “Sweet Dreams” and “Faded Love” following her death.

Patsy Cline (Photo: Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame)

Cline’s Lasting Legacy

To date, the legacy of Cline continues. In 1973, Cline posthumously became the first female performer to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 1981. Cline’s life and music have also been portrayed in numerous documentaries as well as the 1985 biopic Sweet Dreams, starring Jessica Lange. By 1995, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized Cline with a Lifetime Achievement Award in addition to Grammy Hall of Fame awards in 1992 and 2001 for “Crazy” (1961) and “I Fall to Pieces,” respectively.

In 2005, Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, which featured songs she had recorded from 1957 through 1963, sold more than 10 million copies. Cline’s childhood home on 608 S. Kent St. in Winchester, Virginia, was restored as a museum in 2011 celebrating the artist’s life, and in 2017, the Patsy Cline Museum also opened in Nashville.

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