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Drinking Beer With Patsy Cline Up in Heaven

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She drank beer and cussed a blue streak and told dirty jokes to make the men blush. She called herself "the Cline" and most everybody else "Hoss." This must have been an altogether new sort of behavior up in heaven, back when she arrived, all of a sudden, fifty years ago today. But I suppose heaven must have made quick peace and accommodation. Because how could you possibly keep Patsy Cline out of heaven?

The last show was in Kansas City. Then it was back home to Nashville, in a little, yellow, single-engine Piper Comanche. It seemed like a good plan. But there was "inclement" weather -- that's the word used in these situations, like how you're driving a car and then suddenly you've died, or "perished," in an "automobile" accident. Death changes the whole conversation, the way you think about people and their places, in this world and the next. And so the little yellow plane plummeted from the sky and crashed in the woods outside Camden, Tennessee, on March 5, 1963, and its most famous occupant, the country star born Virginia Patterson Hensley, became an angel with a honeyed voice and a string of hits you didn't have to be a hick to love -- beautiful songs, it's true, but as much pop as anything. Torch songs, really. You know them. They're timeless, classic numbers, some of the best records anybody ever cut, in any genre -- the likes of "Crazy" and "I Fall to Pieces" and "Sweet Dreams (Of You)."

But on this, the fiftieth anniversary of her death, I raise a cold can of Schlitz (Patsy's brand) to heaven and salute the earthiest citizen of that place, as I prefer to think of her. And I play not those pop hits with the strings and sheen and the Jordanaires singing background, but the pure-country numbers like "Turn the Cards Slowly" and "Don't Ever Leave Me Again," the honky-tonk stuff. Oh, and I guess I picture her dressed like the cowgirl she was early in her career, before the mink coats and cocktail dresses. Mostly, though, I just shut my eyes and my mouth and I listen.

Damn, how that woman could sing -- the big, pure voice, the boom of the thing, the swoop and ache of it. She could growl, and whoop, and she had this other thing she did -- it may be the one thing she can't get away with in heaven -- that sounds like she's swallowed a yodel.

That's the Patsy I love best, before she crossed over (in the chart sense, not the corporeal one). On "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round," you can almost hear bottles breaking, along with the fiddle, steel guitar, and stand-up bass. "Don't Ever Leave Me Again," a song she cowrote, is as tough as the blues. I'll bet she had a hell of a lot more fun singing it than "Walkin' After Midnight," which she dismissed as "nothing but a little ol' pop song."

I like to think my version of Patsy Cline -- the cowgirl in boots, before she was whisked uptown -- is the one the late folk singer Bill Morrissey had in mind when he wrote his great song "Letter from Heaven." It's one man's wry supposition of what it must really be like, up there. The character in the song is "going steady with Patsy Cline," and how I know it's the cowgirl version of Patsy is that in the next line he talks of last night in the bar, buying Robert Johnson a beer ("Yeah, I know everybody's always surprised to find him here"). Oh, and he ends the song with a yodel. Amen, brother.

I know what's in the Good Book, but I like to think heaven is a place where the beer is cold and the music smokes. And I like to think Patsy Cline's up there, getting lots of requests, no doubt, for "Crazy," but singing mostly hillbilly and honky-tonk. Down here, we've made her an angel. We have this image, and the soundtrack to go with it. We've pried the beer can from her cold, dead hands. But I don't think that's quite how it's played out, up there.

Fifty years on, I suppose she's got run of the place and sings what she pleases. She's "the Cline," after all. As for God, well, I guess by now he's come to terms with being called "Hoss."