Cline was born Virginia Patterson Hensley, in a Winchester hospital, on September 8, 1932. Her parents, forty-three-year-old Samuel Lawrence Hensley, a blacksmith, and his second wife, sixteen-year-old Hilda Virginia Patterson Hensley, had married six days before the birth. Until 1937 Hensley lived on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Elkton and with her maternal grandparents in Gore, just outside Winchester in Frederick County. The Hensley family moved nineteen times in sixteen years to various towns in the Shenandoah Valley, including Lexington, and during World War II to Portsmouth. They had returned to Winchester by 1948, when Samuel Hensley deserted his wife and three children. Hensley quit school shortly after her sixteenth birthday and to help support her family began working, first in a poultry plant and then later at a bus depot and as a soda clerk at a drugstore. She also began singing professionally at night and on weekends to supplement the money her mother made as a seamstress.
During the next few years Hensley won amateur contests, sang both country and western tunes and popular standards on local radio stations, and performed with a number of bands. She auditioned in Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry but was deemed too young. In September 1952 Hensley auditioned for the country bandleader Clarence William “Bill” Peer, who had a radio show on a station in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Peer liked what he heard, hired her full-time to sing with his Melody Boys and Girls on the Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Washington music circuit, and gave her the stage name of Patsy. On March 7, 1953, she married Gerald E. Cline, the divorced son of a wealthy contractor from Frederick, Maryland. Virginia Patterson Hensley thereafter became known as Patsy Cline.
In September 1954 Cline signed a contract with the 4 Star Record Company, Inc., and the following June recorded her first songs in Nashville: “Hidin’ Out,” “Honky-Tonk Merry-Go-Round,” “Turn the Cards Slowly,” and “A Church, a Courtroom, and Then Goodbye.” Her first record, released in July 1955 on the Coral Records label, was unsuccessful, although it was produced by the former bandleader Owen Bradley, who was helping create what became the Nashville Sound, a synthesis of country and popular music designed to attract a mass audience. Cline initially resisted his attempts to tone down her “hillbilly” sound with pop arrangements for which he thought her voice was better suited. In 1954 Cline began a series of guest appearances on Town and Country Time, the half-hour daily music-variety television program of Connie Barriott Gay, the premier country music promoter in the Washington area. Usually she performed on the regionally broadcast program as the female vocalist with Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats. This exposure won Cline a booking on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a televised variety show and talent competition, and on January 21, 1957, she won the competition by singing “Walkin’ After Midnight.” The publicity from this appearance increased sales of the Bradley-produced song, recorded for the Decca Records label on November 8, 1956, and by March “Walkin’ After Midnight” held the second spot on Billboard‘s country music chart and twelfth place on the popular music chart.
In October 1955 Cline broke both professionally and personally with Peer, with whom she had been having an affair. Gerald Cline, jealous of his wife’s success and frustrated that she did not stay at home like a traditional housewife, separated from Patsy Cline, and the childless couple divorced in Maryland on March 28, 1957. Cline had met Charles Allen Dick, a linotype operator for the local newspaper, at a Berryville dance in April 1956. They married on September 15, 1957, and had one daughter and one son. Dick was serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg, and without a hit to follow “Walkin’ After Midnight” and with an infant to care for, Cline was back to scraping by as a regional performer. A few months after Dick was mustered out of the army in February 1959, the couple moved to Nashville.
Cline, who had appeared several times as a guest in the mid-1950s, joined the Grand Ole Opry as a regular cast member in January 1960. She began to record more songs and performed to supplement the income from her husband’s printing job. The couple struggled until January 1961, when Decca released “I Fall to Pieces.” This Cline-Bradley masterwork topped the country chart and reached the twelfth spot on the pop chart. In June, Cline was critically injured in an automobile accident but had returned to the studio by August, when she recorded “Crazy,” a song written by Willie Nelson that rose to second place on the country chart and ninth place on the pop chart. In December 1961 she recorded “She’s Got You,” which became her second number-one country hit.
Achieving newfound success, Cline won several outstanding female country singer awards during the next two years. Beginning in January 1962 she frequently appeared as the second-billed performer in a concert tour organized by Johnny Cash that also featured June Carter and George Jones. Her touring schedule included television performances on American Bandstand and the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show as well as concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Mint Casino in Las Vegas. By early in 1963 she had recorded more than 100 songs. Her well-controlled, instantly recognizable voice wrung the last drop of emotion from every lyric.
On March 5, 1963, while flying home to Nashville after a benefit concert in Kansas City, Missouri, in a plane piloted by her manager, Patsy Cline and the country music luminaries Lloyd Estel “Cowboy” Copas and Harold Franklin “Hawkshaw” Hawkins died in a crash near Camden, Tennessee. After a prayer service in Nashville, her remains were returned to Winchester, where her funeral attracted the news media and thousands of fans. She was buried in Shenandoah Memorial Park just outside the city.
In the decades following her death, Cline became a musical icon. In 1973 she was the first solo woman performer to be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and in 1981 she was inducted into the Virginia Folk Music Association’s Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. Her recordings have sold millions of copies, and she has been the subject of numerous biographies, several musicals, a tribute album, and a feature film, Sweet Dreams (1985). The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized Cline with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 and with Grammy Hall of Fame awards in 1992 and 2001 for “Crazy” (1961) and “I Fall to Pieces” (recorded 1960, released 1961), respectively. At the end of the twentieth century, her recording of “Crazy” remained the song most often played on jukeboxes. Cline has fan clubs around the world, a United States commemorative postage stamp, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (although she never made a movie). In Winchester there is a bell tower erected in her memory at Shenandoah Memorial Park, an annual Labor Day celebration of her life, and the Patsy Cline Memorial Highway (Route 522) and Patsy Cline Boulevard. Her soulful interpretations of lyrics and her unmistakable voice continue to win admirers across musical genres and to inspire generations of vocalists, from Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton to Linda Ronstadt and k. d. lang.