[Sidebar] August 21 - 28, 1997
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Urban cowgirl

Patsy Cline live at the Cimarron

by Franklin Soults

[Patsy Cline] Compared with hard-hitting innovations over the past decade from grunge to gangsta, the triumph of slick and glitzy suburbanized country might seem to fall somewhere between tame and lame. Yet in one respect at least, the new country is more radical than anything in rock or rap, in that it's taken over Nashville and bucked the industry's obeisance to tradition. Rock and rap, after all, are supposed to support musical revolutions. But now country -- the most conservative style in American popular music -- has suddenly relegated its proud past to the trash heap, throwing off its senior generation as decisively as gangsta overthrew old-school rap and grunge stomped on classic rock.

The one survivor of the country coup is, surprise, the late Patsy Cline, a country singer who never had it so good in her brief 30-year life. Cline was certainly an established hitmaker when she was killed in a 1963 plane crash, but she had nowhere near the fame and fortune of a contemporary titan like Ray Price or Hank Snow. Starting in the mid '80s, however, she became the only country relic that mattered, selling more than a million back-catalogue albums per year. When a list was compiled recently of the five top-selling female country artists of all time, Cline landed at the number two spot, well below the indestructible Reba McEntire but snugly above Shania Twain, Wynonna Judd, and Trisha Yearwood, three suburban country superstars who have knocked renowned old-timers like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette completely off the list.

Cline's endurance owes primarily to her mastery of Nashville's "countrypolitan" style. With its long, sophisticated melody lines and string-laden orchestrations, countrypolitan was Nashville's attempt at adult crossover during the height of the craze for lounge music in the '50s and '60s. It's only natural that the style's self-conscious urbanity should go over well with a contemporary country market that has left behind its rural traditions. Yet Cline's ability to transcend countrypolitan's dated gimmicks with her poised, sultry, slightly distant delivery makes her seem timeless: she defines country sophistication for the ages as authoritatively as Aretha Franklin defines soul.

To some extent Cline's sophistication sends up an elegant smokescreen over the deeper strengths that made her poise so affecting. The newly released Live at the Cimarron Ballroom (MCA), which was taped on a 1961 road date in Tulsa, reveals those strengths as never before. Not that the recording is particularly pristine. The sound quality is shaky, and so is Cline's voice: this was her first appearance after a head-on car collision that laid her up in the hospital for a month. But by capturing this hard-working show woman in her natural environment, the album unravels her countrypolitan mythos to reveal a rugged, honky-tonk-bred performer.

In short, Cimarron Ballroom humanizes her. In some respects, this flesh-and-blood Patsy isn't even very likable. Determined to prove her toughness after her car accident, she knocks women drivers, gloats over her latest number one, and generally acts so chauvinistic that when she finally makes a crack about Khrushchev, you realize you've been half expecting an anti-Commie rant all along.

But the toughness is also put to good use. As the featured singer at the Cimarron Ballroom's regular Saturday-night dance, Cline runs through a repertoire meant to please a general dance crowd at the close of the first rock-and-roll era, a time when country, R&B, and pop were closer in spirit than they ever would be again. Backed by the lively swing arrangements of a house band led by Leon McAuliffe, a steel-guitar whiz who played with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys back when they were the most versatile band in the known universe, Cline tears through a pop standard ("Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home"), a couple of C&W classics ("Lovesick Blues," "San Antonio Rose"), and some recent rock-and-roll raves ("Shake, Rattle & Roll," "Stupid Cupid"). She even finds time for some of her own hits ("Walking After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces"). And she nails them all.

Too ragged to qualify as a definitive document, Cimarron Ballroom nonetheless shows that Cline was more than an archetypal performer like Aretha: she was a hard-headed genre buster with the will and the talent to find her place in any style. In her lifetime she met success only when she constrained herself to the genteel limits of countrypolitan. But her talent informed her hits with such a deep, subtle passion, it guaranteed her future place in the record books. Not to mention the heavens.

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