Picking Up the Pieces 

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You wonder if Patsy Cline would think it was a little bit crazy.

But Warren Hofstra, professor of history at Shenandoah University (in the singer's hometown of Winchester), says there are a number of very good, sound reasons why panels of historians, authors and country music scholars are heading to the Virginia Historical Society for a Patsy symposium April 4.

"There's something about her music that still touches a chord," Hofstra says. "And it's not just nostalgia."

It's also academia. Odd thing is, Patsy (whose "Greatest Hits" album set a Guinness World Record for the most time on the U.S. sales charts by a female artist) never got such favorable attention from the Virginia establishment when she was alive.

Even after her passing in 1963 at the age of 30, Cline's former Winchester neighbors were notoriously slow in recognizing (quoting the symposium notes) "arguably Virginia's most significant contribution to 20th Century American popular culture." The city once refused to name a street after the Country Music Hall of Fame vocalist who immortalized such classics as "Crazy" and "I Fall to Pieces" -- to them, she was just a brazen hussy (there is now a Patsy Cline Boulevard, thank you very much, as well as a Patsy Cline Bell Tower).

"She did ruffle feathers," says Hofstra, who will contribute to an 11 a.m. joint session at the symposium devoted to "The Cultural Worlds of Patsy Cline's Winchester." "She grew up working-class; most of her neighbors worked at the mills."

But the professor notes that Cline (born Virginia Patterson Hensley) was a trailblazer, a figure worthy of intense discussion. "She was coming along in the early 1950s at a time when there were very few opportunities for women other than marriage and family," he says. "She was someone who put ambition, career, art, achievements ahead of everything. Ambitious people normally run into obstacles. And when they are trying to break class and gender barriers, you can be assured that there is opposition.

"Also there were very few women in country music at that time. ... In many ways, she was a pioneer in country music. It was pretty much a man's world."

Friday's event boasts programs with titles like "Dreams and Nightmares: Patsy Cline and Her Community" and "Sound and Image: Varieties of Patsy Cline." But what's an academic symposium without a celebrity guest and a concert?

Country singer George Hamilton IV, who knew Cline, will participate in a roundtable discussion on Patsy's image (a busy guy, Hamilton is also the author of a book on country music in Washington, D.C., where Patsy first caught a break); he'll also appear at the concert that will conclude the affair. Music director Tim Timberlake (husband of Style Food & Drink Editor Deveron Timberlake) is quick to say that there will be no Patsy impersonator at the live show, which will feature Brad Spivey and the Honky Tonk Experience as house band.

"The concert will be a continuation of what's been going on throughout the day with the seminar," Timberlake says. "It will explore her life and music, as well as the influence that other artists had on her. ... We've got some surprise guests in the works."

The Virginia Historical Society's Paul Levengood says that Friday's tuneful summit meeting "is not really a break in tradition ... but it's fun to break tradition."

He adds that the society wants to amass a formidable Patsy Cline collection (it was outbid a couple of years ago when the singer's original stage outfits appeared on an online auction). "Most of the stuff we collect is donated to us," he says.

"Hopefully, one of the things that doing this program will do is to let people know we are interested in this stuff too — not just about Civil War letters and things from the Colonial period," Levengood says. "We want 20th-century material too, and that includes popular culture. Things that tell the story of the age." S

"Sweet Dreams: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline," a symposium at the Virginia Historical Society, Friday, April 4, 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Concert at 7 p.m. Admission is $60-$90. Call 358-4901 or visit www.vahistorical.org.

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