By Eileen Sisk
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
The Grand Ole Opry suffered the biggest loss of talent in its 87-year history when a small plane carrying Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, along with Cline’s manager Randy Hughes, crashed on the evening of March 5, 1963, in a heavily wooded area roughly 100 miles west of Nashville.
The singers had performed at a benefit on March 3, in Kansas City, Kan., for the family of radio DJ “Cactus” Jack Call, who had died in a car accident a little more than a month earlier. Foggy weather kept them from flying out immediately, and they had to wait a day before they could leave.
Operator error was cited as the cause of the crash because Hughes was not instrument-rated and took off despite warnings of severe windy conditions after a fuel stop in Dyersburg, Tenn. The clock on the plane stopped at 6:18:15 p.m., while Cline’s wristwatch stopped almost 17 minutes later at 6:30 p.m.
According to Eddie Stubbs, on-air personality at WSM-AM/Nashville and Grand Ole Opry announcer, this was the most tragic event ever to strike the Opry family. The second-worst event, he added, was when Billy Walker, his wife, Bettie, and two musicians, Charles Lilly and Danny Patton, were killed in a 2008 van wreck in Alabama. Ironically, Walker had been scheduled to fly on that fateful night with Cline and the other passengers, but Hawkins gave him an airline ticket he had so that Walker could be with his family in Nashville sooner.
Ironic and equally tragic was the death of Opry member Jack Anglin, who was killed in an automobile accident just two days after the plane crash while driving on his way to Cline’s funeral.
“When you mention the names Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, more often than not, people will say, ’Oh, they died in a plane crash with Patsy Cline,’” Stubbs said. “What a shame to just be remembered for how you died.”
Stubbs believes that Cline’s portrayal in two movies, by Beverly D’Angelo in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Jessica Lange in “Sweet Dreams,” helped elevate her to larger-than-life stature in death, even though Copas and Hawkins were bigger stars at the time of the crash.
Copas, who died at 49, had been featured on the cover of Billboard and had the first recording of “Tennessee Waltz” (written by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart). Hawkins, 41, had had a smash hit with Justin Tubb’s “Lonesome 7-7203,” which stayed at No. 1 for four weeks after the crash, and was married to future Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard, who was eight months pregnant with their second son when her husband died.
Hughes, 34, who was married to Copas’ daughter Kathy, had played guitar for many stars in addition to performing as a recording artist in his own right and being a businessman, Cline’s manager and a private pilot.
Cline, 30, had a way of wrapping her rich contralto around a song and infusing it with wisdom, heartache and regret. Surprisingly, she had had just two No. 1 hits, “I Fall to Pieces” (Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard) and “She’s Got You” (Cochran) when she died. Two of her other classic songs, “Crazy” (Willie Nelson) and “Walkin’ after Midnight” (Alan Block and Donn Hecht), peaked at No. 2.
The anniversary of their fatal flight gives fans the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate their musical legacies in at least three ways: a three-day tribute in Camden, Tenn., a WSM radio tribute and an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“Gone, But Not Forgotten”
The city of Camden, Tenn., in promotional partnership with WSM, is currently hosting a 50th-anniversary memorial event Feb. 28 through March 2, called “Gone, But Not Forgotten,” to honor the crash victims.
Highlights include an antique car show, a Cline/Copas/Hawkins sing-alike contest, a panel discussion in which attendees can have a one-on-one with relatives of the deceased as well as artists including Jan Howard, performances by Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, Cline tribute artist Mandy Barnett, David Browning aka “the Mayberry Deputy,” The Grascals and Jean Shepard, and a candlelight vigil at the crash site. Shuttles will be available to take visitors from the core venue of the New Beginning Annex to the crash site, which is about 14 miles north, near Big Sandy, Tenn.
“I really believe that it’s incumbent upon us to properly memorialize these people and their fans and respect them,” said Bill Kee, Executive Director, Benton County/Camden Chamber of Commerce. “We’re trying to do some video interviews so that there will be something lasting that the county of Benton and the city of Camden can have in perpetuity.”
“You’ve got the business aspect and musicianship of Randy. You’ve got the songwriting and the performance of Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. You’ve got a powerful woman stepping into the limelight in Patsy Cline,” noted Claire Ratliff of Laughing Penguin Publicity, who is helping to coordinate and publicize the Camden event. ”Everything that is good about today’s country music is a part of these four people.”
Eddie Stubbs Leads On-Air Remembrance
“Every year since 1997, we have done a tribute program annually to remember the talents of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Randy Hughes and Jack Anglin,” said Stubbs, who was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame in 2012.
“We do this program every year to celebrate their contributions and what they gave to the music, not to glorify their passing. When we have the families in, there’s always a lot of laughter. A few tears are shed, but it becomes a celebration of what they gave us, their contributions as human beings and what they did for the industry.”
All who perished in the tragic crash receive equal time on the WSM tribute. “Each of these artists is a star to us,” Stubbs emphasized. “They all receive equal time.” He recalled that Cline’s widower, Charlie Dick, said completely unprompted during the last memorial broadcast, “Hey, when that plane went down, Cowboy Copas was the biggest star onboard!”
Stubbs names Dick, Kathy Hughes, Jean Shepard and Bobby Wright, Anglin’s nephew and the son of Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright, as likely guests for this year’s show. The tribute will be archived at WSMonline.com/shows/the-eddie-stubbs-show.
“Crazy For Loving You”
The biographical exhibit “Patsy Cline: Crazy for Loving You” opened last August in the East Gallery of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The exhibition, which will continue through June 10, draws extensively from myriad letters Cline wrote to her family and her first fan club president and explores the impact the singer had on Country Music.
One key element of the exhibit is a film created by Museum staff, featuring interviews with four members of CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame: Harold Bradley, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson and the Jordanaires’ Ray Walker, each of whom knew and worked with Cline. Other highlights include archived performances and audio clips from Owen Bradley’s original three-track recordings of some of her greatest performances.
On Saturday, March 2, at 1:30 p.m., the Museum will also host “Forever with Us: The 50th Anniversary of a Country Music Tragedy,” reflecting on the legacies of those who perished in the crash. Eddie Stubbs will play recordings and show historic video footage as well as moderating the panel, which will include Charlie Dick, Kathy Hughes, Jean Shepard and Bobby Wright.
Further details are available at CountryMusicHallofFame.org/current/view/patsy-cline-crazy-for-loving-you.
Jan Howard, a close friend to Cline, Hawkins and Shepard, said, “I could talk about Patsy all day long. She had a big heart, a great sense of humor and a wonderful voice. If she liked you, she loved you. If she didn’t, she told you so. She was just a rare person. She lived when she lived, if you can understand that. She didn’t just exist, she lived.”
Cline loved Country Music and Western swing, but, Howard remembers, she had her own ideas about arrangements and argued over them with producer Owen Bradley, who can be credited for their timeless quality. “If you listen to Cowboy Copas’ and Hawkshaw Hawkins’ music today, it sounds like it was recorded in the ’60s,” observed Bill Kee. “You listen to Patsy Cline music, with the orchestration and the background vocals, and it could have been recorded in Nashville yesterday.”
“Owen stood up to her,” Howard added. “He was a genius as a producer and as a musician. He was my producer. He’d go in and sit down at the piano, and he and the musicians did the arrangements most of the time. It was a combination of a great producer and a great artist with a great voice. If she’d had her way, it wouldn’t have been. Thanks to Owen, her music lives.”