Illustration by Mike Reddy
Country Music Wasn't Our Genre But Patsy Cline Was
A voice that conjured a secret love
By Madeline Weinfield
P atsy was tall, like us. She had a round face that somehow reflected both of our own. Her mother propelled her forward—forward into music and upward into a realm of success dominated by men. Patsy sang about lost love that we could tell she was remembering through rose-colored glasses. (Could it really have once been so good that it was now so bad that she was walking up to a weeping willow?) She was a romantic, a day-dreamer, a success. She was a comet in motion, burning quickly, and then not at all.
It was winter and gray and cold. I remember patches of snow on the ground at Sideling Hill, the rest stop of choice along our route. It was a few days after Christmas and a few days before New Year’s, and just the two of us—my mom and I—were driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Our destination: Perryopolis, a nowhere town just north of the West Virginia border (but fiercely not West Virginia) and the home of my mother’s extended clan. Patsy Cline, and her greatest hits, were coming too.
My mother didn’t learn to drive until she was well into her thirties (a decade Patsy barely entered before she died). Her mother—my grandmother—a daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, had been born in western Pennsylvania steel country and eventually made her way east to life in New York City. It was there she met my grandfather while working at a sandwich counter, and together they settled into a life in Queens. Of their four children, the youngest, and only girl, was my mom. There had been no need for a driver’s license in New York City, for neither my mother nor her mom. The subway took them most everywhere they needed, or wanted, to go.
I don’t know exactly how we came to have that Patsy Cline CD. It was certainly the only country music album we owned. Maybe I checked it out of the library or maybe I bought it with babysitting money the year I started to fall in love with country music. My curiosity had blossomed over the course of Saturday afternoon horseback riding lessons where the radio in the local barn’s dusty tack room was perpetually tuned to “92.5 Philadelphia’s Country!” At first, I alone loved each track of The Greatest Hits, their cumulative sum representing the greatest pain and glory of love (pain and glory I knew little of as a pre-teen girl). But then we loved it.
“I’m crazy…crazy for loving yooouuuu.”
Our drive that winter would be the first time my mother made the trip west to Perryopolis while behind the wheel. She showed me where the brake was, the gas pedal, and the emergency brake too. Just in case. No matter that it would be half a decade before I could legally drive.
My mom’s oldest brother, a city boy born and raised, had moved from Queens with his Queens-born wife to that far corner of Pennsylvania from which his mother came. It was the 1960s, and my mother was still a girl listening to the Ronettes and the Rolling Stones on LPs when they took out a mortgage on a ramshackle shingled farmhouse that somehow still stands today. Their brood grew, one by one, and then by two when twins arrived, until they swelled to a tribe of eleven children firmly rooted in a world very far from New York City.
My mother had visited steadily since her brother first moved. At first the visits were with her parents, and then with my father, and then with our family of five—my two sisters and me, and then just with me. Time worked differently in Perryopolis than in New Jersey where we lived, almost as if on a different angle or a different tilt. Life there was slower and more crowded, and we stayed up much later, eating and laughing and playing games. My girl cousins taught me how to crochet while my boy cousins drove quads in the woods. My uncle’s hunting rifle hung on the wall above the door of their house, and we were told we could look with our eyes but not our hands. Casseroles and salads and desserts were all made with mayonnaise. I loved everything about it.
Country music was what played inside on the radio in my aunt and uncle’s painted purple kitchen, on the perpetually tuned FM in my cousins’ cars, and what we karaoked to one summer at the state fair. Kenny Chesney and Shania Twain and Tim McGraw were the soundtrack of those visits, the songs of my cousins and their world, a place I would dip into throughout childhood. It was never my music, it was never my mother’s music, it was the music of Perryopolis, of my youngest cousin applying acrylic nails on my tween hands, of my aunt’s ever-expanding brood of dogs, of the gold mine discount store Gabe’s, and also of the long afternoons at the barn near home—the music of the freedom all of those things represented.
At home my father played Bach and Schubert on the piano, an old baby grand wedged in the corner of our living room. In her car, my mother played Cole Porter and the Beatles on plastic cassette tapes. And I, in my tiny wallpapered bedroom, played country music on a small blue CD player, turned to the lowest volume, hiding my growing attraction to the genre like a small, dark secret close to my heart.
Things changed when I found Patsy Cline and her greatest hits. Patsy, I wanted to sing. Patsy, I wanted to share. Patsy, I didn’t hide.
On that drive to Perryopolis—the first my mother and I made alone—Patsy’s voice radiated a nostalgia for something I wasn’t sure I had ever lost, or had ever had, but was sure I could feel. And I was sure my mom could feel it too. It was almost as if Patsy was singing of leaving New York and Pennsylvania and New Jersey—all of them rolled into one. It was as if she knew about the house full of cousins and—as I grew older—of both wanting to stay in that chaotic warmth and also of never wanting to return. As if that long walk after midnight Patsy sang about, those miles along the highway, were really about a longing for a brother who moved to a different world and always felt just beyond reach. It was as if Patsy knew about coming home, to a new home you make for yourself. Like she knew about long winter drives that are both monotonous and an act of independence. Like she knew about a memory, forming. Like she knew life was brief, and bright, and sad. Full of contradictions. As if she knew what it was like to play the radio really low and then sing out loud.