On January 21, 1957, Patsy Cline made her national television debut on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which airs Monday nights on CBS. The show featured agents and managers from across the country showcasing the latest artists they had signed. Cline’s mother, Hilda Hensley, had pretended to be her manager to secure them a recording spot in New York.
Cline was 25 and nervous. If she didn’t get a break soon, she might have to say goodbye to country music. She had grown up singing in the choir at her Baptist church in Winchester, Virginia, and in 1955 she had traveled to Nashville to record a few songs for 4-Star Records, which later leased the tracks to Decca. But after a decade of jostling, including a few appearances on “The Grand Ole Opry” and countless nights singing in juke joints and on WINC, a local radio station, Cline still hadn’t found traction in the business. ‘industry.
By all accounts, Cline and her mother were extremely close. Hilda was only 16 when Patsy was born, and Patsy’s father, Samuel Hensley, had abandoned the family when she was just a teenager. Together, Hilda and Patsy managed to support themselves (Patsy also had a younger brother, Samuel Jr., and a younger sister, Sylvia Mae). In 1953 Patsy married Gerald Cline, but by 1956 they were separated and would divorce the following year. It’s been a long road to this CBS soundstage.
That January night, Cline wowed the nation with a deep and steady performance of “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which she had recorded the year before. Cline didn’t really like the song, but the audience responded with such enthusiasm that it nearly broke the applause from the studio. “Don’t go, Patsy, honey,” Godfrey said after Cline finished. “You won this.” Decca was quick to release the song as a proper single. A few weeks later, it was Cline’s first hit, rising to No. 2 on the country chart and No. 12 on the pop chart. It has sold over a million copies.
Country music was then in a state of transition. Rock ‘n’ roll had come to dominate the charts, and songs that sounded too traditional—anything with too much pedal or fiddle, or too many lyrics about family and God—seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. Beginning in the mid-1950s, guitarist and record producer Chet Atkins had helped devise the so-called “Nashville Sound,” which smoothed out the harsher aspects of country music, relying on backing vocals, meticulous orchestration and brilliant production. Atkins was a divisive figure – purists accused him of neutralizing the genre – but his efforts kept country music commercially relevant, creating space for pop-leaning artists such as Cline.
While the genre is enjoying new success, country musicians are dressing in ever more flamboyant outfits. Glitzy and often self-referential suits had been a big part of the country since at least the 1940s, when guitarist and yodeler Gene Autry started sporting a ten-gallon Stetson, sparking a cowboy clothing craze. Yet as country became more pop, appearing on stage in some sort of glitzy, outlandish attire became even more vital, especially for a new singer desperate to make a name for herself.
The whole industry was moving in a spangled direction: in the late 1940s, a Ukrainian immigrant named Nudie Cohn (born Nuta Kotlyarenko in kyiv in 1902) had begun sewing elaborate garments in her garage in Los Angeles and selling them to Hollywood showgirls and actors. , including country singer-turned-western star Roy Rogers. Cohn’s costumes were gloriously ostentatious, with rhinestones, fringe and leather patchwork. No degree of ornamentation was too absurd, and Nudie suits became de rigueur for country stars. Elvis Presley appeared in an extraordinary gold lamé Nudie suit for the cover of his 1959 album 50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong. (Presley reportedly paid $2,500 for the piece.) The idea was to stand out on a crowded stage full of orchestra members and backing vocalists — to convey, unequivocally, that a star was in the piece.
In 1958, presumably inspired by the glitz of Nudie’s famous costumes, Cline’s mother made her a pink ensemble featuring disc-shaped woolen patches with the names of her daughter’s singles spelled out in pink rhinestones: “Come On In.” on the left shoulder, “Poor Man’s Roses” on the right shoulder, “Stop the World” on the left leg, “Yes I Understand” on the right leg and, finally, “Walking After Midnight” on the back. Cline wore it often, including the following year in her hometown’s annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival parade.
Hilda’s creation is as spectacular as any Nudie costume, perhaps even more beautiful for its handmade flourishes – the rhythm of Hilda’s stitching, the black piping. You can imagine Hilda beaming as she worked on the costume. The love is evident in every stitch. It sparkles more than any rhinestones.
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