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BOOK REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY : Two-Stepping Through a Life as Melodramatic as Any Country Ballad : PATSY: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline by Margaret Jones ; HarperCollins $23, 328 pages

August 11, 1994|MICHAEL DORRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the 1950s and early '60s, Patsy Cline fought her way up the slippery country music ladder to become an American icon. Her saga inspired two Hollywood movies, her face appears on a postage stamp, her records continue to sell. Killed in a plane crash when she was just 30, her renditions of songs like "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces" and "Sweet Dreams" have become standards, groundbreaking crossover hits that opened a door to female country singers the likes of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

Now Margaret Jones has written a definitive chronology of Cline's short life that reads as it was lived, like the melodramatic but hopelessly "true" lyrics typical of a Nashville ballad: Tough girl from the other side of the tracks, abandoned by a feckless (and possibly incestuous) father, despised and ignored in her hometown of Winchester, Va., has a voice of pure gold--and knows how to use it.

After countless career mistakes and false starts, after a string of unhappy love affairs and compromises, after being banged up badly in a head-on collision, she makes the charts six times in a row. But is she still crying behind the smiles? You better believe it.

Meticulously researched--Jones interviewed and quotes everyone from husbands to colleagues to fans--"Patsy" presents a multi-sided portrait of its subject, a woman about whose secret self few people seem to be in agreement. Some call her a "woman's woman," others a "man's woman." Some see her as driven by ambition, others as relatively sweet and unaffected.

On several points, however, there is general consensus: Cline had a powerful, not-to-be-denied natural talent like no one else of her generation; she made a loyal pal ("anything, anytime that you needed her, she is there") and a fearsome enemy; she rarely put on airs; enjoyed off-color stories and hard liquor, and she knew how to have a good time when she had the chance.

The good news about "Patsy" is that the book will make you want to re-listen to Cline's work--a helpful and complete discography by Don Roy is appended. No matter what else was going on in her life before and after a recording session, she was unstinting when standing in front of a microphone, a determined perfectionist, "the greatest road buddy that anybody ever had," self-taught and with a wide range of styles at her disposal. When "she did what she was supposed to do--go out there and just act dignified and sing . . . she just destroyed the audience."

The bad news is that after 300 pages of Patsy did this, then Patsy did that, and then Patsy did the other thing, we still don't have much of an idea of who Patsy Cline was. We see her from a distance, from the outside, the woman other people imagined or needed or resented. We get an inkling of the sexism that surrounded the Nashville music industry, of how hard it was for a "gal" artist to break through as a solo or headliner act. We hear about exploitative recording contracts, adultery on all sides, many, many befringed cowgirl outfits, and what it was like behind the scenes of early regional television broadcasts. But Patsy Cline? She remains an enigma.

That's too bad, because we sense there is a deeper story here, a driving force that is fueled by anger and desire, a passion that is heard in the phrasings of her most poignant musical moments. Whatever else she was, Patsy Cline was a chameleon.

"Patsy never seemed to look the same. She could be a big, healthy farm girl, tired and fat, plain, bodacious, brassy and, toward the end of her life, coolly elegant. Some people say they never noticed her facial disfigurement from the head-on collision. Others said when they talked to her, they tried hard not to stare at the scar. Her skin was flawlessly smooth except for parentheses framing her mouth from laughing. Her front tooth was chipped, from opening bobby pins, she said."

Jones' promises of psychological insight--the skewed relationships with men, the mother who was more like a sister than a parent, the rivalries with less gifted but more conventional performers--are dangled but never fully explored. Patsy Cline, the life--as opposed to Patsy Cline, the music--is a melody played too cautiously just out of earshot. But we get enough of Cline's candor and impatience with reticence that we sense that she might say, as the book's conclusion and the much prefigured plane crash draws near, "If you're going to tell it, tell it like it is."

Sad to say, in reality or in legend, Patsy Cline has not yet gotten her proper due.

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