Before Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, or even her close friend Loretta Lynn, there was Patsy Cline. A veritable country legend, her story was just as tragic as any of her heartbreaking songs. There was her tormented childhood and brief yet prolific career—all sadly punctuated by her untimely death in an incident that came to be known as “the day country music died.” Here are 50 facts about Patsy Cline's troubled life and ill-fated end.
Patsy Cline was not with us for that long—her untimely passing came when she was just 30 years old. Her career, of course, was even shorter. The singer released just three full-length albums when she was alive, but still managed to leave a huge impact on country music.
While she only had a few short years of success, Cline had actually been performing since she was 15 years old. It took almost a decade for her to get a recording contract, and another six years for her to reach #1 on the Billboard country chart—but this hard-won victory was punctuated by a chilling tragedy.
The song “I Fall to Pieces” wasn’t an instant hit for Cline. It was initially tossed aside by radio stations, but Cline’s team tried to market it as her transition away from country music. The tune slowly—and we mean very, very slowly—began to climb the country charts. It took from April to August 1961 for it to reach #1, but Cline wasn’t there to see its success.
On June 14, 1961, Cline had a terrifying brush with death. Her family was visiting her home in Nashville, and she had gone shopping with her brother that day. While they were driving home, they were hit head-on by another car—and the aftermath was utterly catastrophic.
Cline was awake and alive when emergency responders arrived on the scene, but her injuries were serious and life-threatening. She had hit the windshield during impact, breaking her wrist, dislocating her hip, and leaving her with multiple cuts and injuries on her face. Luckily, she had help from a friend.
Two of Cline’s most enduring friendships during her life were with fellow country music stars Loretta Lynn and Dottie West. These friendships were a source of positivity and support in Cline’s life, and her tragic passing left the two singers heartbroken. With her death, they became the only keepers of all of Cline’s untold secrets.
Cline’s friend West had heard about her accident on the radio, and realizing that she was nearby, she rushed to the scene. While West picked glass from her friend’s hair, Cline insisted the first responders tend to the passengers of the other car involved in the accident first. Sadly, two of them succumbed to their injuries.
Cline survived the accident, but her injuries were so severe that doctors weren’t sure that she would make it. Ultimately, she spent two months recovering in the hospital. As if that wasn’t bad enough, this was following the release of “I Fall to Pieces.” Cline was left unable to promote the song—however, there was a silver lining to it all.
While it took four months to climb the charts, the ultimate success of the song “I Fall to Pieces” led to an invitation from the legendary Grand Ole Opry. This was a significant honor and a clear indication that Cline had finally made it in the country music world.
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Before Cline was rushed into surgery following her car accident, doctors were worried that she might not make it through—however, they were able to say her. When Cline woke up, she made a heartbreaking confession. She told her husband Charlie Dick that "Jesus was here, Charlie. Don't worry. He took my hand and told me, 'No, not now. I have other things for you to do.'"
The impact of the accident on Cline was devastating. For the rest of her life, she suffered from debilitating pain and headaches resulting from her injuries. On top of that, she had serious scarring on her face. Before performing or appearing in public, she had to apply heavy makeup and use wigs to cover the marks.
Cline was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932 in Winchester, Virginia. Her mother was just 16 years old while her father, Samuel Hensley, was in his early 40s. Living in the wake of the Great Depression, the family moved around the state so that Hensley could find work—and when times were really tough, Cline would pitch in to help her parents and younger siblings as well.
When Cline was just 13, she became incredibly sick with a throat infection and rheumatic fever. It was so severe that she was hospitalized and even put in an oxygen tent—but this terrifying period had a surprising bright side. After emerging from the oxygen tent and being released from the hospital, Cline found that her voice was suddenly booming.
This trial led her to take up singing, and her deep contralto set her apart from her contemporaries.
Cline began singing in the choir with her mother Hilda. The pair were particularly close throughout her life, with many saying they were more like sisters than mother and daughter—but behind closed doors, Cline lived in fear and shame. She hid a dark secret, and it wouldn’t come to light until long after her passing.
Cline confided in her close friend Loretta Lynn that when she was growing up, her father molested her. It was an experience that had also sadly been shared by their friend Dottie Marsh. While Marsh actually went to the police, ultimately testifying against her abuser and sending him to prison, Cline never got justice from her situation.
When Cline confessed to Loretta Lynn, she also asked her friend to her secret to the grave.
Life changed completely for Patsy Cline when she was just 15 years old. That was the year that her father left the family. In any other story this would be a tragedy, but for Cline, it was a blessing. She and her mother were finally free of his abusive grip. Sadly, they were also incredibly poor, and following his departure, Cline had to leave high school to help support the family.
After Cline left school, she worked a number of jobs, including one in a soda shop. Another was quite gruesome—she worked in a poultry factory in Elkton, Virginia. Not only did she have to pluck the feathers from chicken carcasses, she also had to butcher them.
During this tough time, Cline became determined to become a singer. She needed to find an outlet not only for her striking voice, but her need to step away from low-paying jobs. She frequently performed around her hometown in Virginia, and was absolutely fearless when it came to seeking opportunities in the music industry.
One of Cline’s boldest moves as a young singer was to contact the Grand Ole Opry at just 15, asking for an audition. After her initial letter, they asked for photos and recordings, and Cline sent some along. When she got a call to audition in person, she and her family packed up and drove eight hours to Nashville. Sadly, nothing came of the audition, but Cline wasn’t ready to give up yet.
When Cline was 20, she got to leave her soda shop job when she got a a gig with a local country bandleader named Bill Peer—but behind closed doors, she was hiding a dark secret. She began having an affair with the older and very-much-married Peer at his behest. The relationship went on for years—even through Cline’s disastrous first marriage—but neither ever left their spouses.
The affair also had the undesirable side effect of completely ruining Cline’s reputation in Winchester.
So how did Virginia Patterson Hensley become Patsy Cline? Well, when she was working with Peer, she frequently performed at the Moose Lodge in Brunswick, Maryland. One of the regulars there was named Gerald Cline. He was a local contractor, and the pair were married in 1953, when she was 21. Peer had encouraged her to take a more stage-friendly name, so she took her husband’s last name and got Patsy from her middle name, Patterson.
Following her marriage, Cline continued to work—and have a secret relationship with—Bill Peer, and he was the one who prepared her first demo tapes to send to record labels. Soon, she signed a contract with Four Star Records with both her husband and Peer at her side. Somehow, her contract was even more nightmarish than that situation.
Due to the conditions of the contract, Four Star was entitled to most money that her music could potentially make, and they really had no idea what to do with Cline’s strong, deep voice. She recorded country, gospel, rockabilly, and pop songs, but didn’t quite fit into any of those molds. As a result, she didn’t have much success at first.
During that time, Cline did make multiple appearances on TV and radio programs, including a first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. It was during one of these appearances, on the Ozark Jubilee, that she met a man who would change her life. His name was Charlie Dick, and he wasn’t a concert promoter or a record exec.
He was the love of her life, and she knew it, but there was just one problem—she was still married to Gerald Cline.
Soon after that, Cline got the call to appear on a TV talent show—sort of an early Star Search or American Idol. Unlike most of the shows she appeared on, this one aired nationally. She needed a “talent scout” to appear, so she enlisted her mother, even though family members weren’t supposed to participate. With that, the two left for the Big Apple.
When the producer listened to the country song that Cline had prepared to perform and saw the cowgirl outfit she was supposed to wear, she put her foot down. Instead, Cline donned an evening gown and performed a new tune in her arsenal, a torch song called “Walkin’ After Midnight." She went on to win the program.
The unplanned song wasn’t yet in print, so it had to be rushed out, and it became Cline’s breakout hit in 1957. Life was changing fast for Cline, but not fast enough. Cline hadn’t been terribly discreet about her affection for Charlie Dick while she was still married to Gerald Cline. Not only were the two spending time together, she also told her friends about him.
Finally, she took the plunge and divorced Gerald Cline on July 4, 1957.
After years of struggle, everything was coming up roses for Patsy Cline. Her debut album came out in August 1957, and then in September of that year, she married Charlie Dick—but behind closed doors, Cline was hiding a dark secret. She was drinking a lot and showing up late for shows. And there were consequences, too: Cline wound up getting fired from the TV variety program she regularly appeared on.
Cline was quite in demand for appearances after the success of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” She made about $10,000 in total, which she used to pay off her mother’s home. Sadly, none of the others singles from her debut album were a success. With her career stalled, she came up with a plan. She was going to move to Music City—Nashville, TN.
Nashville was the right decision for Cline in every way. It was in Nashville where she found a close network of girlfriends, gave birth to her two children with Charlie Dick, and accomplished greater success in her career. She also achieved her lifelong dream of becoming an official member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Sadly, it was also where she had her terrifying car accident.
Cline’s close friendship with Loretta Lynn was actually the result of that accident. When Cline was recovering in hospital, Lynn recorded a cover of “I Fall to Pieces.” Cline loved it, and insisted that her husband go find Lynn so she could sing her praises. They remained friends for the rest of Cline’s life.
Of course, it was at the Opry where Cline first returned to the stage following her accident. She also began work on a follow-up single to “I Fall to Pieces,” and her record company suggested a heartbreaking little tune penned by Willie Nelson. Cline hated it and refused to record it—but her track record with career decisions wasn’t great, and she was worn down eventually.
Cline added her own spin to the song, which became “Crazy”—it would become her biggest pop hit, a country standard, and probably her most recognizable song.
Many music critics have highlighted at the way that “Crazy” captures a sense of immense pain, even noting the “ache” in her voice—and while Cline’s voice could certainly convey a multitude of emotion, there was a heartbreaking truth to it all. Cline recorded “Crazy” while she was still recovering from her car accident, and hitting the high notes in the song would cause her actual physical pain.
There’s no doubt that Charlie Dick was the love of Patsy Cline’s life, but no marriage is perfect all the time—and in fact, theirs was often something out of a nightmare. According to biographers, their marriage was "fueled by alcohol, argument, pills, passion, jealousy, success, tears, and laughter." And sometimes, the dark side was much stronger than the light…
Cline and Dick were known for two things: fighting and drinking. Of course, the two often went hand in hand, but one night, it reached a terrifying climax. Their fight turned physical. Cline called the police on Dick, and he was arrested—but they ultimately reconciled.
Cline was brazen, fearless, and loved to crack a joke, even on stage—but to her friends, she was the most caring, thoughtful, and supportive person they’d ever met. Life revolved around her in Nashville, and she was close with most of the female singers in town. She always insisted that if journalists and DJs wanted to talk to her, she also had to talk to them.
When friend Dottie West first moved to Nashville and was struggling, Cline offered to pay her rent. Aside from being close friends, Cline also acted as Loretta Lynn’s mentor, teaching her the ropes of the business and how to stand up for herself. As West put it, “there'll never be another like Patsy Cline."
After the success of “Crazy,” Patsy Cline was a bona fide star. Between 1961 and 1963, she had a string of hits, and she bought her dream house with Charlie in the suburbs of Nashville. However, she was still bound by a less-than-favorable contract and wanted more cash to pay the bills, so she booked a string of shows in Las Vegas. It was an utterly miserable experience.
Cline performed 35 shows in Las Vegas in late 1962. For the first time, she experienced stage fright, and also suffered from throat problems. The separation from her husband and children also took its toll. It was an accomplishment—she was the first female country singer to have a Vegas residency—but when Cline returned to Nashville, she wasn’t the same.
After surviving a failed marriage, affairs, abuse, and a horrific car crash, Cline had seen more than enough to know that she hadn’t been dealt the best hand in life. She knew firsthand that even with her success, everything could all end in an instant. Following her death, her close friends—and country legends themselves—Loretta Lynn and June Carter Cash revealed that Cline had “an eerie sense of her own impending death”—and she may have even been acting on it.
That’s not the only evidence that Cline was eerily aware of her own death. In the months before the plane crash, she updated her will, making sure it said that her children should be cared for by her friends. She also began to give away her things to friends and loved ones.
In March of 1963, Cline traveled to Kansas City, Kansas to perform a benefit show for a cause that meant a lot to her. Country DJ “Cactus” Jack Call had perished in a car crash in February that year, and the benefit was held to support his family. The shows featured the biggest names in country at the time: Cline, her friend Dottie West, and George Jones, among others.
Cline had a terrible cold, but that didn’t stop her from enchanting her audience. She sang for a standing room-only crowd who packed in to see her for three different sets that day.
The day after the concert, all the country stars who had come in for the benefit prepared to go back to where they came from—which, for most of them, was Nashville. The bigger name stars all prepared to fly out, but a thick fog had settled over Fairfax airport and flights were canceled. Dottie West was anxious to get back to her kids, so she and her husband Bill prepared to make the taxing 16-hour drive back.
West asked Cline to join them, but Cline refused, saying, "Don't worry about me, Hoss. When it's my time to go, it's my time." Sadly, her words were true in more ways than one. If Cline had accepted the ride home, she might have been spared the dark and tragic fate that awaited her.
Two days after the show, Cline prepared to fly home on a small plane operated by pilot Randy Hughes. She was accompanied by two other musicians who played the benefit, Cowboy Copas and Hackshaw Hawkins. Like Cline, Hawkins nearly missed his dark fate as well—the seat on the plane had originally been reserved for musician Billy Walker, but he ended up changing his destination to tend to an ailing family member.
The flight made two stops—one to refuel in Missouri and the second at Dyersburg, Tennessee. There, the airport manager warned his passengers of the inclement weather they’d face before they hit Nashville. The manager advised them to stay overnight, but the pilot insisted that they keep going. It was a fatal mistake.
The flight carrying Cline, Copas, and Hawkins went down shortly after taking off from Dyersburg—within mere minutes. It took off at 6:07 PM, and the wristwatch that was eventually recovered from Cline’s body had stopped at 6:20. The plane was found in a forest near Camden, Tennessee, just 90 miles short of Nashville.
Because of the short distance between Dyersburg and Nashville, family and friends immediately knew Cline’s plane was missing, and they began to do everything they could to find it.
Emergency lines were flooded with calls, the lights at the Nashville airport were kept on all night in case the pilot was lost, and people began to search where they could for the plane. Singer Roger Miller was searching the woods near Camden, screaming Patsy’s name, when he came across the horrible wreckage.
Authorities came to collect the bodies, and autopsies later showed that everyone on the plane had died on impact. Cline was just 30 years old. Nashville may have been her adopted home, but Cline had stipulated in her will that she wanted to be buried in her hometown, Winchester, Virginia. Her memorial was attended by thousands, and her grave is marked with the heartbreaking inscription “Death Cannot Kill What Never Dies: Love."
The incident came to be known as “the day country music died,” and it immediately had a gruesome chain reaction. After the bodies of those who passed on the flight were removed from the scene, looters descended upon the wreckage, stealing what souvenirs they could. Some, like Cline’s watch and three pairs of her shoes, were later donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Other items, like her pay for the last show and the outfit she performed in, still remain unaccounted for.
In the years following her passing, Cline’s husband Charlie Dick worked tirelessly to keep her legacy alive. While she was appreciated in her time, the reissues and box sets that came out even decades after her death, many championed by Dick, have all been essential in cementing her place in music history and turning her songs into timeless, beloved classics.
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