Honky Tonk Angel
The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline
By Ellis Nassour
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2008 Ellis Nassour
All rights reserved.
* * *
VIRGINIA HENSLEY: "Mama, we got company."
HILDA HENSLEY: "It's eleven o'clock!"
VIRGINIA HENSLEY: "It's Wally Fowler. He's in the living room."
HILDA HENSLEY: "What? Now listen, Virginia!"
The anguish of Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, and Randy Hughes as their Piper Comanche crashed straight into the Tennessee hill country in March 1963 was so intense it is all but unimaginable. Their pain has returned to haunt their loved ones throughout their lives.
Charlie Dick, Patsy's widower, has a deep love for Patsy that nothing and no one has ever been able to fill. He had a hard time accepting her death, especially under the rocky emotional circumstances of their marriage. Charlie kept the living room of Patsy's dream house locked. He left their bedroom as it was, and slept in another room. Her clothing remained in the closets. He left her makeup, hairspray, and combs in the bathroom. Friends who visited had the eerie feeling that Patsy was in the house.
But with two children to raise, Charlie remarried in 1965. Still, he could not forget his Patsy. Especially when drinking heavily, he would play Patsy's records over and over, which led to friction with the new Mrs. Dick, singer Jamey Ryan.
On one occasion, Charlie repeatedly played Patsy's recording of the Bob and John Wills classic "Faded Love." At the end, Patsy sang:
I miss you, darlin', more and more ev'ry day,
As heaven would miss the stars above.
With ev'ry heartbeat, I still think of you,
And remember our faded love.
On the final repeat of the word "love," Patsy, who had bet Charlie she could reach the high note without modulating, took a very audible deep breath, then sang out.
This particular night, as the record kept playing, Jamey asked Charlie to shut the phonograph off and come to bed, but he continued to replay the song. Finally, she said, "Honey, it's late. Come to bed. Patsy's dead. I'm your wife now."
As Patsy sang that last, sustained note, Charlie yelled, "Listen, she's not dead! How can she be? Here she is living, breathing!"
* * *
Mrs. Hilda Hensley of Winchester, Virginia, feels she disappointed her daughter, Patsy Cline, only once.
"Singing was Patsy's life," she reflected. "Country singing. I know, more than anything, Patsy would have considered her election to the Country Music Hall of Fame the greatest honor of her career. It's the one I treasure, but on the night of her election I let her down. When Johnny Cash read her name, I fainted. When I came to, that part of the Country Music Association awards show was over. I was angry that nobody told me about her election. Since the bronze plaque which hangs in the Hall in Nashville had to be cast, someone had to know. No one said anything on Patsy's behalf. That was the very least I could have done after all she did for me."
Each year an active and inactive member of the country music industry are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Though five nominees in each category are announced in advance, only the company that produces the plaques, the executive director (then Mrs. Jo Walker) of the C.M.A., and the accounting firm that tabulates ballots know the names of the inductees. They are sworn to secrecy. During the broadcast, a previous honoree reads the nominees' names and unveils the plaques. Acceptance remarks are not made.
At the seventh annual awards, on October 15, 1973, one exception was made. Cash, not yet a Hall of Fame member, was selected to do the presentation. Chet Atkins, the internationally renowned guitarist and record producer, was named in the active category. Then Cash read Patsy Cline's name.
As Charlie remembered, a hush fell over the audience. Patsy's membership was another break with tradition. She was the first solo woman artist to be so honored — a tribute to her trailblazing career in country and pop music. Sylvia Mae Hensley, Patsy's sister, let out a scream of shocked surprise. No one recalls Mrs. Hensley fainting, only that she sat silently in shocked disbelief.
That night Mrs. Hensley relived "a lot of heartaches and some beautiful memories." She said, "It wasn't at all sad. She was a wonderful daughter. I saw her start from nothing and watched her accomplish great things. She made her dream come true. All she ever talked about and wanted was to be a country singer. God in heaven knows she did it the hard way, and had very little to show for it except her children."
Everybody has asked Mrs. Hensley how Patsy got interested in country music. "It must have been in her blood," she explained. "She didn't take after me or her daddy. Patsy's love of music accounted for her drive to become a singer."
Before setting her goal, Patsy Cline was quite impressionable. As a child, Virginia Hensley, as Patsy was then called, idolized Shirley Temple. All the way home from the one-hundred-seat Elkton Theatre in Elkton, Virginia, where she and her mother had seen a Shirley Temple movie twice, she would tap dance down the streets.
For hours, then days, afterward, she'd say, "Mama, I want to be a dancer just like Shirley Temple."
"What?" replied her mother. "Now listen, Virginia, you know we can't afford dance lessons."
But it didn't do any good. Before Mrs. Hensley could get the words out, Virginia was tap dancing all over the house.
"I'd stand, watch her and shake my head," her mother recalled, "and couldn't help but laugh."
Mrs. Hensley hoped and prayed that dancing was a phase her daughter would soon pass through, but at age four Virginia still hadn't given up the dream. When Mrs. Hensley saw a notice for a children's dance competition, she entered her precocious child: "To my amazement, she took first prize. Without any formal training! Then something funny happened. That was the end of dance. Now came the music phase. Not singing, but playing the piano."
Virginia had a half sister, Tempie Glenn, from Mr. Hensley's first marriage, who was being groomed by Elkton music teacher Sally Mann into an accomplished musician. (She later went on to the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music.) When Virginia visited, she spent hours listening to Tempie Glenn play the piano and came home mesmerized. "Mama, I want to play the piano just like Tempie Glenn!"
"What?" exclaimed Mrs. Hensley. "Now, listen, Virginia, you know we can't afford piano lessons."
But Virginia drove her parents crazy until, on her seventh birthday, they bought her a piano. It was either that or having her go to any house in town with a piano to "visit."
"Virginia played by ear," Mrs. Hensley said. "When I took her for lessons, right in the middle of the practice the teacher said, 'She's got a natural gift. You'll be wasting your money. I don't think I could teach her to play.'"
Mrs. Hensley noted that from the time she was ten, Virginia had a new fascination. "She never missed the Grand Ole Opry and knew every detail about each singer."
Saturday nights Virginia sat in front of the radio and sang along with tunes on the broadcasts. She'd get excited and burst out, "Mama, I want to be a singer just like Ernest Tubb" — or Mother Maybelle (Carter) or Roy Acuff or Tennessee Ernie Ford or Rose Maddox or Red Foley, or she wanted to yodel like Patsy Montana.
Mrs. Hensley uttered her standard reply: "What? Now, listen, Virginia!" She hoped and prayed that this phase, too, would pass. But it was a lost cause. Virginia wouldn't let go. She really and truly wanted to be a country star.
Her cousin Herman V. Longley, Jr., of Elkton remembers that "even from an early age [Virginia] was a go-getter. If she wanted something, she set her goals and went after it with a vengeance."
Mrs. Hensley discovered that nothing could defeat Virginia. "When she told the children at school that she was going to be a country music singer, even they took her seriously."
* * *
Patsy Cline's grandfather, Solomon Job Hensley, was born at Hensley Hollow in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains on April 12, 1858, the sixth of eleven children. Sol, as he came to be called, was, for his time, an educated man. Mountain schools went only to the seventh grade, and it is believed he completed his education. He was an avid reader. "Grandfather looked forward to the daily newspaper," said Longley, "which he not only read but thoroughly digested. He was a man everyone respected and looked up to. They had to." He stood at least six feet tall and weighed approximately 250 pounds.
He met Margaret Elizabeth Shifflett when she was nineteen, a year older than he. They married September 26, 1878.
Sol, thanks to land acquired by his father and mother, Benjamin and Rebecca, became a massive landowner. According to Longley, a son of Sol's daughter Lelia Ann, "He wasn't the wealthy man some in the family have presented him as. Today, I hear the grandchildren talk about Sol and Margaret having maids and servants. I have to laugh. The only maids they had were the daughters, and the only servants were the farmhands. Grandfather had money, but lived a simple, Spartan life."
In quick succession, Margaret gave birth to Ida, Bess, Lelia, and Cicero, who died in 1884 at age six. Sol and Margaret left Hensley Hollow with his father in the spring of 1888. Together, they bought a farm of more than 200 acres approximately two miles west of Elkton in Rockingham County. They named it Solsburg and grew wheat and corn there. They built two homes, which still stand on State Route 981: one is a stone bungalow and the other a simple frame house that became the homestead. It was here that the other children — Mattie, who died at six months at the end of 1888, Samuel Lawrence, James, Alice, Ruth, and Ashby — were born.
When Benjamin Hensley decided to end the partnership with his son in 1889 after Rebecca's death, his son bought his share of the farm. Benjamin bought another farm a mile west of town while Sol increased his landholdings, slowly at first and then more rapidly.
In 1907 he purchased a 130-acre farm near Penn Laird. Hensley eventually added 460 acres of grazing land in the Blue Ridge Mountains (now a part of Shenandoah National Park), which he named Cedar Falls, and 640 acres, known as Allendale, on the James River near Scottsville.
Sol had a great appetite for land, and, it appears, ladies. One encounter with the latter was to change the course of his life and respectability. He was on his way from Solsburg to Cedar Falls and stopped to water his horse at a spring. Resting near the water was an attractive girl, Polly Shifflett (no relation to Sol's wife). That meeting led to a tempestuous affair. A few months later, Polly was pregnant. She was fifteen.
A scandal errupted, not so much over Polly's age — in that era, men much older than Sol married young girls — but over the fact that Sol described himself as a "hit and miss man." He claimed the baby couldn't be his. Sol was married and a respected family man, with no intention of divorcing his wife. The matter went to trial at Harrisonburg, the seat for Rockingham County, and became a sensation. After weighing the testimony, the judge decided, "No matter your past performance record, you, Solomon Hensley, have obviously scored a run this time. And you'll pay up." Sol settled a fortune on Polly and her family but staunchly denied being the father.
Sam, the father of Patsy Cline, was born August 16, 1889. As a teenager, he showed a love of his father's land and great promise as a farmer. He stopped growing at five foot seven but was extremely strong. He carried his 175 pounds well. Sam, said Longley, was an outgoing, energetic, and mechanical-minded man.
He, too, developed a reputation as a ladies' man but, suddenly, in 1912 quietly settled down and married Wynona Jones. In 1914, he signed up for World War I. He did service as a blacksmith on the front in France's Argonne Forest and was discharged in November 1918 after the Armistice.
Sam returned home a different man. He lost interest in farming. On one of his father's farms there was a limestone quarry used for grinding rock for mountain-road surfacing. Sol offered his son a job as one of the foremen, but Sam turned it down. He moved to the hamlet of Gore, Virginia, about thirteen miles from Winchester on Highway 50, and found work in a quarry where sand was processed into glass.
He and Wynona had two children, Randolph, born in 1919, and Tempie Glenn, born in 1921 and who died in 1989.
In 1927 Wynona caught pneumonia and died. Not long after, Sam, forty, met thirteen-year-old Hilda Patterson of Gore at a Sunday school picnic. According to Hensley's diary, they married in 1929 after a whirlwind engagement. The couple settled on Solsburg and Sam reluctantly went to work for his father.
Tempie Glenn, eight, and Randolph, ten, went to live with and were raised by Sally Mann, their Elkton music instructor.
Randolph "Hobby" Robinson, an Elkton raconteur and the owner of Robinson's Department Store, got to know the family well. He described Sam as "a hard-drinking, mean son-of-a-gun and hell-raiser."
However, Longley said, "Sam was a complex person, but he was ordinarily not a heavy drinker and hell-raiser. A pint of liquor would last him two or three years and the only time I ever saw him raise hell was on the rare occasion when he got really mad. Sam was just plain folk, but he could put on the dog and be refined."
Hilda became pregnant in December 1931. She returned to her family in Gore, where Virginia Patterson Hensley was born September 8, 1932. (A family member made the contention that Patsy may have been born two years earlier.) When Virginia was ten days old, Hilda returned to Solsburg.
Robinson has vivid memories of Virginia Hensley. "1 can still see her now, as a five- and six-year-old, skipping down the street, singing at the top of her voice. I adored Virginia and would wait on her personally when her mother and father brought her in, especially when Virginia needed shoes. I remember the friendly, rough time she gave me. Already she possessed a sassiness and the knowledge that she was someone special.
"Virginia was a bit high-strung and temperamental. She only wanted what she wanted, which was always Mary Janes, those black patent leather shoes with the strap. I'd tease her with another kind, saying, 'Well, Virginia, I have these in your size. They're very nice. Don't you like them?' She'd tell me in a minute, 'No! I want the Mary Janes.' And that's what she got."
When she was in the third grade at Elkton Elementary School, her parents began a series of moves. The first was to the Allendale farm, which Sam was to oversee. Then Sam bought a small house on Elkton's main street, East Spotswood Avenue.
Virginia was given to daydreams and flights of fancy inspired by Saturday afternoons spent in the Elkton Theatre. When Virginia wasn't accompanied by her mother, she'd climb the ladder to what was called the balcony and take one of the six seats in front of the flickering light. It was on the screen of the tiny theatre that Virginia saw a very wealthy woman in a luxurious bath. It was something she never forgot, something she'd always envy.
Sam found work as a fireman at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where he stoked the boilers. The family relocated once again.
Margaret Hensley, Sam's mother, died in 1938. That same year, Sol suffered a series of debilitating strokes that partially paralyzed him. Sam and Hilda returned often to Solsburg.
Sam and Hilda moved to Grottoes, about thirty-three miles northeast of Staunton in a region of the Shenandoah Valley famous for its natural caverns. Sam worked for the Duplan Textile Mill.
In 1941, Sam relocated his family in Portsmouth, where he worked as a master blacksmith and engineer at the nearby Norfolk, Virginia, Navy Yard. The Hensleys' son, Samuel Lawrence, Jr., whom everyone was to call John, was born here.
Longley has a photo of Sol at eighty-four with his two-year-old grandson on the front porch of the stone bungalow. Sol has a full head of beautiful silver hair, which, according to Longley, would sparkle in sunlight.
Sol Hensley died November 27, 1943. Daughter Lelia was the executor of his estate. Because of mounting bad debts and the financial slide that began with the settlement of the paternity suit, she decided to sell off the various properties and divide what was left among the siblings.
After the war, Sam and Hilda returned briefly to Elkton with Virginia and Sam Jr. and lived on Rockingham Street. Not long after, Hilda gave birth to Sylvia Mae.
When times got tough, fourteen-year-old Virginia, passing for sixteen, got a job at a Rockingham poultry factory, where she plucked and cut chickens. She told friends about wearing hip boots because of the wet, bloody floors and complained about the foul smell and working conditions. (Continues...)
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