Walkin’ Way After Midnight
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
“She took the standards for being a country music vocalist and raised the bar. Even now, women, are trying to get to that bar… If you’re going to be a country singer, and if you’re not going to copy her – and most people do come to town doing just that – then you have to be aware of her technique. It’s always good to know what was in the past because someone might think they’re pretty hot until they hear her…. It gives all the female singers coming in something to gauge their talents against. And I expect it will forever.”
- Nashville session guitarist Harold Bradley
On Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at 1:30 in the morning my world stood still. At the age of fifty-seven, that rarely happens anymore, however I found myself wiping away tears at the sheer beauty of music I’d heard for years and, yet, I felt like I was discovering for the first time.
Sweet Dreams: The Complete Decca Studio Masters is a two-disc set of Patsy Cline’s entire output for Decca records between 1958 and 1963.
The twenty-four bit remastering process takes these already classic selections to a completely new and almost other-worldy level.
For those of you who, with “fly on the wall” aspirations, this gets pretty damn close; it feels like you are standing just outside the vocal isolation booth in the studio.
You can actually hear Patsy take a breath between phrases, and when the drummer accidenttly cross-sticks and hits the rim of his snare, it’s noticeable. I always wonder about subliminal components to great recordings and these new remasters reveal a number of them. I can hear counterpoint violin, pedal steel, and guitar figures being played against the vocals, and on most of the tracks there are two identical bass lines, played on both upright and Fender electric.
…And then, there’s that voice.
Listen carefully to her feline growl/moan that adds a subtle “At least that’s what he says” irony to songs like “She’s Got You.” Her deceptive kitten-like purr at the beginning of a song serves only to set up a world-weary “what’s the use?” surprise turn of emotions in the chorus; then another single non-verbal mannerism changes the entire mood a third time a second before the song’s end, as a short laugh ends, she reaches down and throws it into overdrive, roaring right up to a final a capella phrase, and then two notes into that… drops into a quasi-yodel and quietly resolves back to the beginning feel.
Once again, if I’m guilty of anything, it would be gross understatement, this woman doesn’t just sing a song, she owns it, every note and phrase, for fifty-one stunning selections.
Virginia Patterson Hensley was born September 8, 1932, in the hamlet of Gore,Virginia. The family moved to nearby Winchester where she began singing in church and family gatherings. At thirteen, she was hospitalized with a throat infection and rheumatic fever. According to her: “The fever affected my throat and when I recovered I had this booming voice like Kate Smith…”
Although she never learned to read music, she had perfect pitch and an innate feeling that makes even the most mundane pop song a three-minute masterpiece.
Much like Sam Cooke, her delivery is both unique and genre defying. Unlike Kitty Wells and other “country”singers, the Cline (as her bandmates affetionately called her) comes in behind the beat, then just ahead of it. She climbs octaves effortlessly and knows just when to pour on or turn off the drama.
Reputable sources claim that during the recording of the final album, her turbulent personal life had begun to spill over into the recordings. At the end of “Faded Love” she chokes back a clearly audible sob, and “Sweet Dreams” has moments of raw pain that border on the unbearable. However, thanks to the remastering, we are also given a chance to listen as she sings “Bill Bailey” like she’s telling an X-rated joke (which she was famous for) to the guys on the bus.
Reaching For the Stars
From the beginning, producer Owen Bradley (brother of Harold), knew what he was dealing with. In later years he would freely admit that from the beginning, Cline’s potential for success went far beyond the small niche of country music. Indeed, the arrangements on many of her ballads, complete with strings and background vocals, lean closer to Jo Stafford than Kitty Wells. Owen Bradley deserves a place alongside Sam Phillips, George Martin, and Phil Spector in the ranks of legendary producers. In an era of three-chord verse/verse/chorus/verse standardized product, he employed jazz chords, key modulations, unusual combinations of rhythm (a four/four shuffle morphs into a bolero and then back to a shuffle), and a touch of natural reverb to give his star’s voice an almost eerie quality that haunts you long after the song is over, listen to “I’ve Been So Wrong’ and you’ll see what I mean.
- “You Belong To Me” ends with a four-part harmony (courtesy of the Jordanaires) lifted straight from The Four Freshman songbook.
- As far as the blues…“Your Cheatin’ Heart” forgoes the pleading of Hank Williams‘ original version and in its place Ms. Hensley spits out a series of dire predictions, punctuated by an unforgiving final laugh.
Listen to this collection’s version of “Crazy.”
It’s that quality possessed by all great soul singers, a hurt and an innocence lost; Etta James captures it in “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
Patsy’s interperation of a song she inititialy referred to as “A piece of shit,” taps into that same frustration. After chastising herself for being so stupid, she asks: “What in the world did I do?” The word “do?” receiving a full four and a half bars of confusion and despair before melting back into that “Oh well, it hurts so good” growl.
I’ve always been a major fan of Patsy’s, but this collection has actaully caused me to reconsider her place in American music. No doubt she sets the standard for country, but after listening to every selection, some of them numerous times, I think there’s a good argument to be made that she belongs in the same league as Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday,Peggy Lee, and Bessie Smith. If that sounds a bit over the top, pick up on this set, listen to it all the way through, go back and listen to her float that octave at the beginning of “I Fall To Pieces,” then check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HG-8uZg2uV0&feature=relmfu), and watch her sing it live with a completely different feel.
Drop me a line when you regain your composure.
The Common Thread
From the very beginning, this column has been about music that renders arbitrary labels like “blues,” “country,” “sacred,” “secular,” or whatever, redundant and pointless.
There’s a universal thread to all of it.
Whether it’s Archie Brownlee’s voice breaking on “Our Father” or Patsy Cline’s on “Faded Love,” there’s that moment at the end of the song when you realize that something recorded over fifty years ago has just captured your undivided attention with it’s raw power and beauty. For a few brief seconds, a blind man from Mississippi or a country girl from Virginia has completely pulled you into their world and, in turn, caused your own to stand still.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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