Just past noon on a Saturday in early March, the first warm weekend of the year, the only sound on South Kent Street was a screen door slapping behind two teenage girls as they crossed a short lawn. In black hoodies and tight, neon-highlighted ponytails, the pair turned and walked behind the yellow house they had come out of, possibly headed for the shallow creek just past the rear property line, or maybe to the train tracks beyond that.
The sidewalks are cracked and shifted on Kent Street. The porches are peeling. Sixty years ago, the residents of this gently hilly enclave on the east side of Winchester, Va., were strictly white working class. Today they’re more ethnically diverse, like the city generally, though each house still looks like a place where people have to make their money stretch. All except for no. 608, which looks exactly as it did back when the street was only white folks. That Saturday, a small crowd had gathered outside, and JudySue Huyett-Kempf was smiling anxiously as she shook hands on the porch, welcoming everyone to the former home of one of the best-known singers in the world.
Not long ago, the Patsy Cline Historic House and Museum was in total disrepair, stuck in legal limbo after decades as a rental. But in 2011, this tin-roofed two-story with white paint and black shutters was transformed into the only tourist attraction in sight. Its six front windows now gleam like a grand piano, and clean bricks line its stretch of the sidewalk, engraved with the names of the people who donated them. Visitors from as far away as Australia and Japan have paid their $8 to get inside and see a painstaking restoration of the building as it was between 1948 and 1957, the longest Patsy lived in any building throughout her short life.
Big necklace, big earrings, big smile, and a long leopard-print blouse: enough to make you forget that JudySue stood barely an inch above five feet. Every curl of her hair was teased into place and her makeup was absolutely flawless when she ushered us into the house. The air changed immediately—it was as if we’d traveled back in time and landed in a diorama. The wood-box television and 45 player in one corner were the only traces of halfway modern technology in the living room. Beyond that were only framed black and white photos, a white piano near the front window, and a side table next to a floral print couch draped with homemade lace. A framed copy of Patsy’s most famous early ’60s headshot, signed to her mother (“We finally made it!”), sat prominently on the piano lid. Three departing Patsyphiles were talking with an olive-complexioned man in white gloves, a volunteer for JudySue’s nonprofit Celebrating Patsy Cline, which instigated the house’s resurrection.
Patsy Cline didn’t belong to the Winchester elite when she lived here, and not even her tragic death and subsequent global stardom has earned their affection.
“Those were actually Patsy’s,” JudySue beamed, pointing to a group of kitschy salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen windowsill. “And same with the table and chairs right near ‘em.” She had a right to be proud: In the Lazarus tale of 608 S. Kent, JudySue is Jesus. For now it is the signal achievement of her 20-year campaign to make Winchester synonymous with Patsy, or at least to recognize her as a local hero. Her struggle to do so shocks most outsiders. After all, any place would be thrilled to capitalize on a hometown girl who grew up to be the first solo female inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, with a global fan base that rivals Sinatra’s and a face that once graced a U.S. postage stamp. But Patsy Cline didn’t belong to the Winchester elite when she lived here, and not even her tragic death and subsequent global stardom has earned their affection.
She was at the height of her fame, only 30 years old with two young kids, when the tiny plane that her tour mates had affectionately dubbed “the shitbox” plunged through the east Tennessee trees on March 5, 1963. Thousands of heartbroken fans and friends made a pilgrimage to outer Winchester to attend the funeral. Many called it the saddest day they ever experienced, but the Winchester Star—then as now the city’s only newspaper—described the solemn event as “a mob scene... They acted as if it was a ‘dollar day’ at the department store.”
The house’s official visitor season doesn’t start until April, but JudySue and her fellow CPC board members had opened it that week to mark the 50th anniversary of the crash. They’d scheduled a Saturday night party and Sunday afternoon memorial service, and secured attendance from a few of Patsy’s relatives and friends.
“David will be leading your tour,” JudySue said, then called over the man in white gloves. “You’re in luck.” She stepped away into the kitchen, one shelf of which doubled as the gift shop.
“Where you folks from?” David asked. One man was from northern Virginia, another from central Pennsylvania. They were both over 50, alone, just big-time Patsy fans looking to experience the house, though neither literally wore their fandom like the couple from Ohio, whose Patsy T-shirts, with her iconic mile-wide smile and full cheeks, peeked out from underneath their Steelers windbreakers.
That smile masked incredible, persistent suffering. Patsy Cline was born Virginia Hensley in 1932, the first child of a 16-year-old mother and 43-year-old father. “Ginny” spent the first two years of her life living with her mother, Hilda Hensley, in a wooded cabin without electricity or plumbing. Hilda grew vegetables in a garden behind the house and caught fish in the nearby Shenandoah River. Patsy’s father, Sam Hensley, worked construction and hauling jobs throughout Virginia before landing a salaried position as head boilerman for Washington & Lee University. The family moved with him to Lexington and was housed in a relatively luxurious home in the woods near the gymnasium. For five years, Ginny sat by her bedroom window and heard weekly dance concerts by the world-class jazz orchestras that came on campus to soundtrack fraternity parties. That was 1937 to 1942, the height of the big-band era, and it was the first professional music that Ginny had ever heard.
David narrated this tale with such practiced earnestness that it was hard telling if he actually liked Patsy or was simply an expert salesman. At the end of an anecdote about Patsy’s childhood bout with rheumatic fever, which nearly left her voiceless, he intoned, “Imagine, a world without Patsy’s voice,” and then let a moment of solemn silence go by. Our Ohio couple nodded grimly.
Hilda and Patsy had moved 19 times in the 16 years leading up to their arrival on South Kent, sometimes with Sam, but often without. (He left the family for good soon after they moved into no. 608.) They were determined to hunker down and provide a proper, stable home for Patsy’s much younger siblings, Sylvia and Sam Jr. Money was perpetually scarce, so Patsy dropped out of high school and worked hourly jobs around the city, including shifts at a movie theater snack bar and a chicken slaughterhouse. Her longest-held job was at Gaunt’s drugstore, about a ten-minute walk southwest. She was a beloved and friendly soda jerk, and naturally adept at memorizing the regulars’ orders. In the evenings and weekends she put that crowd-pleasing impulse to use by singing anywhere people would listen. She played bars, Elks lodges, Rotaries—all the smoky highway beer joints within driving distance.
But rarely in Winchester. There was no country scene in her hometown, no love for hillbilly culture or cowboy couture. So among the city’s patrician class Patsy was known simply as a loudmouth and unregenerate flirt. She called out to passersby from her porch swing and sang at disreputable venues with all-male bands. She had a deadbeat father and a divorced mother, and didn’t even have the decency to feel ashamed of it.
Worse still: She wore pants.
In the small parlor, where the family’s dinner table stood on a rug made from patches of WWII Army uniforms, stood a bona fide breathtaker for Patsy fans: a replica of the blue and white tasseled cowgirl dress that she wore in her early career. It hung starkly on a vintage dress form mannequin next to Hilda’s sewing machine, the family’s main source of income during their years on South Kent. Hilda was a master seamstress and made all of Patsy’s early outfits by hand. She also sewed and repaired clothes for Winchester’s upper class and baby-sat their children. A kids’ toy made from wooden spools and red thread dangled from the Singer.
We followed David up the stairs by the front door and into the bedroom. That’s bedroom, singular, even though four people lived there most of the time. Sam Jr. slept behind a sheet on a rope line. On the other side Patsy slept in one bed, and Sylvia slept with Hilda in another.
Singing was “the one thing she could do that wasn’t going to cost us,” Hilda later said. Patsy got her first real break at age 20, playing with a regional country bandleader named Bill Peer, who was married and a father but still fell in love with her. It was Peer who suggested she call herself Patsy, from her middle name, Patterson. Their affair was well known and whispered about, and the indignity probably pushed her toward Gerald Cline, a 28-year-old heir to a construction fortune who wooed her whenever the Peer group stopped at the Moose Lodge in Brunswick, Md. They married in 1953, then fought bitterly for years because she refused to stay off the road and have children. By 1957 Patsy had split from Peer, then from Cline, but also had fought her way on to one of the most popular television shows in the country. It’s accurate, though diminishing, to call Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts the American Idol of its day; a greater percentage of the country watched Godfrey’s talent show than have ever watched Idol. A win could make a career, and that’s what happened for Patsy when she sang her third single, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” in 1957, and the impressed host deemed it a “wam-doodler.”
Back home, the Star wrote up the performance but misspelled her maiden name and called the song “I Walk Alone at Midnight.” But the single sold well enough that Hilda could move the family to a bigger house down the street, no. 720, and rent no. 608 for extra cash.
In other words, this bedroom was the site of Patsy’s struggle. The lower floor was for entertaining, which she and Hilda did whenever possible. But the bedroom, with its close quarters and drafty windows, embodied more of what those uncertain years must have felt like. It was the place where she made her face up and prepared for late nights that she hoped might free her from such a hectic, needy life. A blanket on the foot of Patsy’s bed was the actual handmade quilt she slept with. The glove box by Sam Jr.’s bed—Patsy was a glove collector, never without multiple pairs—was also the real deal. Her drive and strength were more accessible in the presence of these intimate mementos, as was the depth of David’s admiration for her.
“I hope you guys feel some of what we feel up here every day,” he said, making eye contact with each member of the group, one by one. A drawl seeped in to his voice. “I know there’s something here. I work here a lot by myself, sometimes the entire day. And I hear things. And I think, ‘OK, did I not get enough sleep?’” He laughed and so did everyone, secure that he wasn’t just some nut. Then David quickly pivoted back to seriousness. “But I’ve heard the door close up here a few times.” No one laughed.
Like many early-American cities, Winchester has a historic district that looks downright English: lots of small brick and stone buildings line its skinny streets, along with black wrought-iron gates and vines crawling up the gutters. The regal Handley Library boasts tall columns and a green metal roof that wouldn’t look out of place in Trafalgar Square. It occupies a full block on the poignantly named main commercial road, Piccadilly Street. Two blocks east of the library sits the posh George Washington Hotel, built 1924. It closed in the 1970s and was used as an old-age home for a time, but like the Cline house it’s recently been restored. In the hotel’s case, the restoration was performed by the not-even-remotely-nonprofit Wyndham Hotel Group, and it’s once again the city’s premier nightly accommodation.
On Saturday night, the hotel’s Half Note Lounge—a loud and low-lit box with high ceilings and jazz-club décor—was buzzing with Patsy fans and Winchesterites who knew her back when. Around 8:30, Patsy’s daughter Julie got up to thank everyone and say how much it meant to return home. Julie doesn’t remember much of her mother, but she has actively stewarded her legacy and is even president of the global Patsy Cline fan club.
Winchester remains one of those noble American towns where history can still be felt as a living force. It is spoken of like a utility, like the atmosphere.
“It means so much to have her here,” JudySue told me as Julie set down the microphone and everyone applauded. “To have her blessing and her involvement is just so important.”
Julie’s presence carries weight because Winchester remains one of those noble American towns where history can still be felt as a living force. It is spoken of like a utility, like the atmosphere. The region has a southern soul but started as the frontier—the moneyed families and Scots-Irish settlers who founded Winchester in 1752 were then some of the westernmost white people in America. George Washington lived and led troops here during the French and Indian War and later won his first political seat, in the Virginia House of Burgesses, by returning to give away a wagonload of booze in the center of town on Election Day. But because the region is true Dixie, the Civil War looms largest of all; it’s rumored that Winchester switched sides more than 70 times. There are two cemeteries just up the road from 608 S. Kent, one Confederate and the other Union, that stare at each other from opposite sides of the street.
But even more than its battle scars, Winchester loves its apples. The city sits inside but distinct from surrounding Frederick County like the yolk of a sunny-side egg, a section of the Shenandoah Valley that was once carpeted with orchards. Local fruit magnates employed generations of working-class Winchesterites, including Patsy Cline’s mother and grandmother. The region’s biggest social event of the year is still the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, a whirlwind weeklong celebration of the cash crop that was inaugurated in 1924 by a consortium of growers including Harry Flood Byrd, later the state’s governor and inarguably the most influential state politician in Virginia history. Winchester swells to 250,000 people for the festival, about ten times its normal size, with a nonstop succession of beauty pageants, socialite parties, and family events.
For generations, Winchester chose to see itself as a cradle of history-book heroics and fortune-making agribusiness, and against this backdrop no amount of no. 1 records or global adoration could erase the notion that Patsy Cline was just another piece of poor white trash from South Kent Street. That’s why the few nominal public acknowledgments of her connection to the town—a street name, a sign along Interstate 81, a historic marker outside the house—all popped up in only the past 20 years, usually thanks to private backing, and with considerable opposition from the city government in each case.
In the ’50s, the George Washington Inn was the main daytime social site for apple barons, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and their wives. By night their employees and customers, most of whom lived on Kent Street, descended upon Loudon Street, a few blocks west. They saw movies or talent shows at the Palace Theater, got drunk at the pubs, or just sat in their parked cars and called out to friends—mobile porches, basically.
Patsy’s wedding to Gerald Cline was the closest she got to the proprietary life. When their marriage ended, she went to the opposite end of the spectrum, a heavy-drinking good ol’ boy named Charlie Dick. Like Patsy, he was the oldest of three and never saw his father after the age of 15. Also like Patsy, Charlie liked to drink and cuss and fall in love, and they did all three from the moment they met each other on Friday, April 13, 1956. Julie, their first child, was born in 1958.
All around us at the Half Note Lounge, people were growing louder and drinking the night’s special, an agonizingly slow-to-mix bourbon drink called The Cline, served in a martini glass. Over at the microphone, a nervy-eyed brunette named Liz Ruffner, CPC’s resident tribute singer, cued up her backing tracks on an iPad and performed alarmingly note-perfect renditions of “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Strange,” “She’s Got You”—all the hits. The older crowd was busy catching up with each other. A few of the younger women, ladies in their forties, were dancing like they’d already had a few Clines.
I asked JudySue, how about Charlie?
“He’s been terrific as well. Helping however he can.” David had made a similar contention back at the house that morning. The official CPC line on Charlie and Patsy was that they were nothing like the volatile depiction in the 1985 Patsy biopic Sweet Dreams. In Winchester, everybody calls that film simply “the movie,” and nobody speaks of it fondly. Part of the CPC mission, particularly since Charlie has been generous with his support, is to reclaim the Patsy story from that melodramatic Hollywood treatment and the iniquitous local lore that preceded it. As David put it: They fought, sure, but it only got physical one time.
No matter how you frame it, their marriage might be charitably called tempestuous. Their home life was tense when Patsy’s career flatlined in the late 1950s, after her success with “Midnight.” She continued to record with her regular producer, the visionary “Nashville Sound” pioneer Owen Bradley, but nothing stuck to the charts. They tried everything: mambo and straight country and gospel and weepy pop ballads. The busy schedule made her voice even stronger. Always a powerful belter, she became even more expressive with her breaths and vibrato. Bradley brought in Elvis’s backing vocalists, the Jordanaires, whose pillowy harmonies threw her own powerful instrument into even starker relief. Unlike earlier female country singers like Kitty Wells, Patsy had no twang in her voice. It was accentless and firm as copper, the perfect vehicle to push country into the mainstream, as the genre had been threatening to do since the mid-’50s.
Then lightning struck, in the form of “I Fall to Pieces,” written by a young Hank Cochran. It was a heartbreak ballad like dozens of others Patsy had already recorded (she called them “hurtin’ songs”), and she curled around the melody, tugging at the lyrics with her signature rise-and-fall crying effect. It was released in early 1961, around the time Patsy gave birth to Randy, her second child with Charlie, and the song crawled up the charts all through the summer. Patsy was in a near-fatal car crash on June 14, and “I Fall to Pieces” hit no. 1 on the pop charts while she convalesced. Tribute performances, many by younger female singers who already considered Patsy an influence, began at the Opry, and by the time she got back on the road she was a superstar.
Liz, the tribute singer, cued up the backing track for “True Love” after dedicating it to her mother and father. “It’s my daddy’s birthday,” she said. “He passed away many years ago.”
Two of the younger women gathered at the Half Note yelled warmly at each other over the noise while they watered down their Clines with Sprite. The bottle blonde had an ornate tattoo across her upper chest, and they both looked like they’d spent most of their years breathing through cigarettes. The brunette, with no tattoos I could see, gave her friend a hug and shouted to me that they’d known each other for 41 years.
Even at the height of Patsy’s fame, “her people” had their place, and it was nowhere near the George Washington or the front page of the Star. When Patsy performed at Carnegie Hall in 1961, as part of a veritable “Grand Ol’ Opry Goes to Manhattan” package concert, the Star—then, as now, owned by a member of the Byrd family—only mentioned it on page 7, a week after the show. Right as “I Fall to Pieces” peaked, Patsy returned home for a rare Winchester gig, leading her band atop the movie theater concession stand in between shows. As her friend “Joltin’’’ Jim McCoy later told it, “the women—it was never the men, that’s one thing I’d like to clarify—the women started blowing horns and booing her... She started crying so bad... she said, ‘Why do people in Winchester treat me like this?’”
The people in the Half Note Lounge that night were there because they loved Patsy and related to her. If they didn’t grow up with her music playing nearly on a loop throughout their childhoods, then they knew the singer personally. Their mama knew her mama. They had heard of her legendary friendliness while shopping at Gaunt’s. Or in the case of Anita, a pretty, middle-aged woman I bumped into while trying to avoid being tackled by a drunken dancer, they heard Patsy sing as a child.
Liz sang the loping gospel standard “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” a live version of which was the final recording Patsy ever made, and Anita shared her story. She grew up in Frederick County but later moved downtown and had lived there for 34 years with her husband, Nathan, who sat next to her, smiling silently.
“We never were the moneyed people,” she said of her early life. Her father worked in the city at the employment commission, and her mother held multiple jobs, for a tractor company and then for medical offices.
“My mom was very aware of Patsy Cline, but we never discussed her back then.” Anita’s aunt and uncle, however, took her to see Patsy perform when she was a little girl. “I remember seeing her, realizing she was so different. She looked a little different; she was more made up than a woman in my family.”
It wasn’t until years later that Anita recognized Patsy’s achievement. “I’ll never forget, in 2000, going into a remote little pub in England and Patsy Cline was playing,” she recalled. “Then we later had some English friends come over and their high school-age kids wanted to see Patsy Cline’s grave.” At the time there was nothing in town to commemorate the singer besides her resting place. But nowadays, Anita said, “It’s almost as if we developed a conscience and decided to honor her the way she deserved.”
Starting in the 1950s, the new “business progressive” mindset replaced the previous Southern focus on industry and agriculture, and Winchester went all-in.
By going to college, serving on the Winchester board of education and participating in state and local political campaigns, Anita found a very different life for herself than her rural upbringing promised. She still refers to herself proudly as a “county girl,” though one of her daughters now lives in the Baltimore suburbs and she and Nathan travel around the country and abroad.
The entire Winchester-area middle class has traveled a similar path since about World War II. Economic, cultural, and political changes have elevated these proprietary sons and daughters beyond the abidingly second-tier status that their parents held. Starting in the 1950s, the new “business progressive” mindset replaced the previous Southern focus on industry and agriculture, and Winchester went all-in. The current Winchester-Frederick County Manufacturing Directory includes about 100 companies, most of which have come to the region in the last 60 years. The Winchester section of I-81, which forms the city’s eastern border, was completed in 1965. Thanks to that road and the other major local thoroughfares—I-66 and state Routes 7 (the Harry F. Byrd Highway) and 37-50 percent of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive. Virginia’s sole inland port was built just 12 miles south of Winchester in 1989, so shipping traffic now accounts for part of the region’s economic pull, as well. The first industrial parks were built in the ’80s, and now they cover a shudderingly vast sprawl of land above the city limits along the interstate.
Not surprisingly, the region’s population growth over the past four decades has rivaled that of any other U.S. county in the 20th century, as the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission will happily tell you. U.S. manufacturing jobs decreased throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but Winchester-Frederick County’s spiked . And inside the Winchester limits alone, the population increased 7.4% from 1990 to 2000, and 11% from 2000 to 2010.
There have of course been what Anita mournfully called “growing pains.” Many residents pay an inadvisable third or more of their income in rent. Nearly a fifth live below the poverty level, a figure slightly higher than the national rate. Like America at large, Winchester’s economy has become increasingly corporatized and unfriendly to the truly working-class. The big employers in town aren’t the old local tycoons but monolithic corporations like Rubbermaid, Pactiv Foodservice Products, and Valley Health, which owns the infinitely expanding Winchester Medical Center on the city’s west side. Nearly a quarter of the workforce is employed in the human services field, especially health care, and an additional quarter works in manufacturing and retail.
Patsy’s songs remain spectacularly relevant for a rapidly changing community. Her great subject was loss; her voice is almost synonymous with it. Joe Bageant, the journalist and Winchester native whose book Deer Hunting With Jesus is the most evocative ground-level record of all this business-minded “progress,” perfectly described Patsy’s current working-class stature:
We know such things as the way she was treated by the town’s establishment, was called a drunken whore and worse, was snubbed and reviled during her life at every opportunity, and is still sniffed at by the town’s business and political classes. But Patsy […] took shit from no one and knew cuss words that would make a Comanche blush and, well, she was one of us. Tough and profane. (Cussing is a type of punctuation to us.) Patsy grew up on our side of the tracks and suffered all the insults life still inflicts on working people here.
That’s why the Half Note bar buzzed with triumph on Saturday night, as did JudySue’s voice all weekend. With the old social structure no longer economically relevant, the descendants of Patsy’s people are now in positions of power and influence. Patsy is their north star, their spirit animal. She embodies everything they claim to value in a person: hard work, generosity, humor, irreverence, and God-given talent. Winchester is a town that clings to family stories and historical claims with grim obstinacy, and Celebrating Patsy Cline is attempting to reclaim that identity as other long-held stories crumble under the weight of prefabricated shopping centers and an influx of outsiders.
Reaching back to Patsy is also a good way to resist all that weight. As Liz sang the mournful opening bars of “Crazy,” Patsy’s second enormous hit, from 1962, Anita called over her mother Louise, who worked at alongside Patsy at a newsstand in the ’50s. Louise is now a docent at 608 S. Kent. I asked her, what caused all this change in Winchester in the last few decades?
Louise looked me straight in the eye and said, without a thought, “Northerners came in.”
JudySue insisted on taking us around town on Sunday morning, a few hours before the graveside memorial service. Typically she delivers her “Patsy’s Winchester” spiel from the front of a coach bus filled with visiting Patsyphiles. For many years she did it in full cowgirl regalia. That day she just drove us in her Camry. It was the first morning of daylight-saving time, and the city was still sleepy. But not JudySue.
“This town is all about Washington and the Civil War,” she said, as if in judgment of the empty streets. “That’s all they care about.”
Our first stop was WINC, the still-operational radio station. “Winchester is by no means country,” as JudySue put it. In the ’40s and ’50s, the city was more enamored of big band, swing, and pop music. But Joltin’ Jim McCoy hosted a country show on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, and for $5, people could come in and sing on the air. After her family moved back to the area, Patsy came to McCoy unable to pay the fee. McCoy let her on anyway, and let her sing many times after. When her fame soared, Patsy would roll by the station whenever she came back into town. With her hair in curlers, she’d park her beloved red Cadillac and come inside to pay tribute to McCoy on the air and play her new single.
When her fame soared, Patsy would roll by the station whenever she came back into town. With her hair in curlers, she’d park her beloved red Cadillac and come inside to pay tribute to McCoy on the air.
Unlike many of the people who come to Winchester hoping to walk where Patsy once did, JudySue isn’t a lifelong fan. She knew Patsy as a peer before ever appreciating her place in the history of the region. Back then, Patsy was just a singer in the same bars that JudySue went to on Saturday nights with her teenage boyfriend.
“I had no idea,” she told me. “I was in my own world then, doing my own thing. I was into Elvis, rock and roll. That’s one thing Patsy and I shared—we loved Elvis.”
JudySue grew up an only child in Berryville, one exit east on the Harry Byrd Highway and the kind of little Frederick County town that considers Winchester the big city. Her father traveled all over the country training racehorses and then switched careers to work for Canter’s, an oil business now owned by Southern Energy Co. JudySue would have loved to have been a singer, but had to settle for being Miss Apple Blossom 1961. (She bragged about the accomplishment, but I had to figure out the year for myself later.)
She entered the banking industry early, working her way up over 28 years to branch manager for Winchester Farmers & Merchants. Then, in the early ’90s, her bank was robbed three times in six months. She was a hostage twice, and pulled by her hair at gunpoint. “I had just purchased a gorgeous white suit, and they got it all dirty,” she smiled. “That’s what really got me upset.”
She left banking and began volunteering for the Winchester tourism board in 1994. After fielding dozens of calls asking about then-nonexistent Patsy attractions, JudySue petitioned the chamber of commerce to start Celebrating Patsy Cline, which became independent of the chamber four years later. By that time she’d immersed herself in Patsyana and grown amazed that the city was willfully ignoring such a “gold mine.”
As a rural girl and later a female professional in an old-money town, JudySue also grew to appreciate just how daring Patsy was. “She supported her family, she worked, she sang. She was quite a busy lady. They threw things at her, but she got right back up again and kept singing. She was way, way ahead of her time. A woman in a man’s world. And she adapted herself to that.”
We passed the building where Patsy recorded her earliest sides, then continued on to the Triangle Diner, where she is rumored to have worked. We stopped at Gaunt’s Drugstore, which now lacks the sundae bar that Patsy benevolently lorded over as a teenager, giving out extra toppings even when folks couldn’t afford them. In place of ice cream, Gaunt’s now houses a storefront and memorabilia counter devoted to Patsy. A life-size painting of Patsy in her trademark red cowgirl dress now smiles out from the main window—charmingly hokey even though the face bears no resemblance whatsoever.
Gaunt’s is still owned by Harold “Doc” Madagan, who has worked there since shortly after Patsy left. Doc is threatening retirement, and there are no set plans for the building. CPC would love to use it to display the original dresses and other clothes that wouldn’t be safe from deterioration in drafty 608 S. Kent. It’s not at all guaranteed that they’ll be able to buy it. A McDonald’s looms tauntingly across the parking lot, though even they have bowed to Patsy’s legacy, displaying a huge 45 record in the window and a couple black and white photos of her hanging near the bathrooms.
JudySue continued on to the improbably regal Handley High, the soaring columns of which more closely resembled UVA than any other public school I’d ever seen. This is the school that Patsy dropped out of; it’s possible she didn’t attend classes at all. Either way, their new performing arts center is named for her.
“Let me show you the rich area,” JudySue finally said. She took a left turn onto Washington Street, a wide boulevard flanked on both sides by palatial plantation-style homes. Here were wide, wraparound porches and gilded domes, field-length yards behind walls of manicured hedges.
“This was all lawyers,” JudySue explained. “Most are still owned by the original families.”
To be True Patsy is to be a warrior, a believer, a missionary.
JudySue described Winchester as a place where “you never pay any attention to your neighbor.” You keep to yourself and don’t question things too much. Unlike Anita and Nathan the night before, JudySue is longtime member of the city’s business class. When you look at the town from an economic perspective, she said, “I wouldn’t say things have changed. It’s still a tight ship with the city council. Most of them are still there from when I started.” I asked for names and she paused for a while. “I gotta live here.”
All nine members of the Celebrating Patsy Cline board are businesspeople: a retired banker, a woman from Valley Health, the downtown development director—people with wealth and connections, but not necessarily members of those original families from Washington Street. The House’s 13 docents are people like David and Louise, fans and contemporaries who just want to spend time in that rarefied air, sharing their love of the singer. The criterion for membership is the same for both positions; everyone has to be “True Patsy,” as JudySue described it. To be True Patsy is to be a warrior, a believer, a missionary. More often than not it means having a personal connection to Patsy’s era.
“A lot of the people who come to the house are either from that generation or they have a connection to it. They say, ‘Oh my mom had a couch like that; my grandma had that plate.’ That generation only had each other.”
We drove out into the county toward the Shenandoah Memorial Park, where the afternoon’s service would be. On that day 50 years earlier, Route 522 was a parking lot for Patsy’s funeral. People left their cars sitting there to walk up. But now it’s just another quiet country highway waiting for its share of sprawl. The farmland rolled by and the houses grew further apart. We pulled into the parking lot of Omps Funeral Home, right by the park. JudySue was nervous. She looked over the empty spaces, likely wondering how many would be filled in a couple hours. Fifty attendees would put her at ease, give her the sense that all the weekend’s preparations were worth it. Coverage by the Star and by Channel 3, the local TV news, would help the mission as well. But for now she had a ghost story on her mind.
It cost $100,000 to refurbish 608 S. Kent, and that sum wasn’t easy to raise. The day that CPC got their final $20,000, the house was still only bones: no heat, plumbing or power. JudySue received the celebratory call just past 6 p.m. She hung up, elated, and then immediately the phone rang again, a Kent Street neighbor calling to tell her that all the lights were on in the house.
“So I drive by the house, and it’s lit up like a Christmas tree. I circle the block, and come back and everything’s off again. Now, I don’t believe that stuff, but I called the city the next day and they told me, the electricity was off the whole time.” She let a silent moment hang in the parked car. Then she sung the descending opening syllables of “Crazy” and laughed to herself.
Well before 3 p.m., over 60 people had shuffled quietly into the funeral home’s main hall and taken the programs David had prepared, featuring dozens of Patsy photos. A young woman from Channel 3 was sitting near the back with a video camera. The other guests, dressed for church, fiddled with forget-me-not seed packets illustrated with Patsy’s portrait that the docents had given out with the programs.
David, who had recently fulfilled a long-held dream and been ordained as a minister, walked up to the podium right on time in a purple clerical scarf.
“Ours is a sacred purpose today,” he opened, setting the tone for the next hour. “Patsy dreamed, she achieved, she overcame.” We had gathered to celebrate “a life not forgotten, a voice that cannot be silenced.”
I leafed through the program and read one of the two poems he’d written for the occasion. It was titled “Our Shenandoah Angel,” and it celebrated perseverance above all:
You struggled and you tried never wanting to hide,
To be a voice to the people singing with pride,
As you journeyed through life with your head held high,
No one could stop you, no matter how they tried.
The first speaker was current Winchester Mayor Elizabeth Minor, a longtime local public servant who had handily won her second term only a few months earlier. In 2010, she designated Sept. 4 as Patsy Cline Day, one of the only official recognitions the singer has ever received from Winchester. Mayor Minor walked slowly to the podium, clutched its sides and looked up, and began crying immediately.
“To me, anyone that isn’t a fan of Patsy Cline is totally un-American,” she laughed. “She is one of Winchester’s very own… Everywhere you go, everyone knows Patsy Cline, and everyone knows where she’s from. She is such a strong part of Winchester’s history.”
Tracie Dillon, a one-time CPC board member who was born years after the plane crash, opened tearfully with a quote from Harriet Tubman. She called Patsy “my lifelong idol” and said, “She rose above the things that weighed her down, and she proudly proclaimed where she was from, despite being shunned by those who didn’t have the same belief in her dream.” She then trembled her way through the lyrics of “Always,” recorded only a month before Patsy’s death:
Days may not be fair, always
That’s when I’ll be there, always
Not for just an hour
Not for just a day
Not for just a year,
Jowly older men with gruff, quivering voices and still-vivid memories of a youthful Patsy, Doc Madagan and Jim McCoy lent some historical gravitas to the ceremony. But it was Julie, Patsy’s daughter, who elicited the most tears from the crowd by asking us to remember the other three passengers on the plane, including Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, much bigger stars in the country world than Patsy in 1963.
After Liz Ruffner sang the early 20th-century gospel song “The Old Rugged Cross” a cappella, the crowd walked out to the grave.
It was a modest thing, just a three-foot metal marker flush with the ground at the outset of the cemetery. It was marked “DICK,” and that day a large bouquet of roses, sent by Charlie, was sitting in the place where he’ll eventually lie. The ground was still soft from a snowstorm earlier in the week, but the sun was out and a powerful wind tossed the men’s suit jackets as we stood in a circle around the grave, squinting and readjusting our feet.
One more emotional speaker read a final prayer. This was Jim Mogavoy, whose father drove Patsy’s car in two Apple Blossom parades in the late ’50s. He was born the same year as Patsy but stood tall and oak-like in his tartan jacket. “Her memory, 50 years later, is still alive for us,” Mogavoy read from a piece of wind-shaken paper.
As the group began to break up, some attendees lined up to take pictures of the grave; others approached Julie, who signed programs and stood for pictures while the wind scrambled her black hair. But most people congregated in small groups for prolonged hugs. The wind kept toppling the graveside flowers, and David and the other docents sprinted over to stand them back up.
The cars funneled back out along 522, back into a county and city that for all their immutable superficialities were unrecognizable from 1963. Back then, no faceless corporate parks dominated the rolling hills to the north, and no infinite stretch of big-box shopping blemished the farmland to the south. But then, 50 years ago, no local reporters were headed back to edit approving stories about the honorable crowd that had gathered to remember a woman of the people.
For the first time in days, JudySue was standing alone, gazing off at the horizon. I asked if the weekend had gone as she’d planned. She looked astounded.
“Everything I’d hoped,” she said. “Just… so perfect.”
She has a long way to go; Patsy isn’t nearly yet a hometown saint. Just that same weekend, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley had hosted “Avenue of Invasion: Lee, Gettysburg, and the Shenandoah Valley in 1863,” a research symposium that attracted twice the crowd of JudySue’s graveside service. But even the museum is changing: Its first Patsy Cline exhibition will open on Labor Day weekend, for Patsy’s 81st birthday.
More than apples, more than war, more than Washington, Patsy Cline speaks to those long-rooted Winchesterites who remember a time before the interstate. They’re the ones who now guard Winchester’s historical memory, and her songs are their sacred music. With the future unclear, they want Patsy to be the soul of their city before progress puts a price on even that.