Patsy Cline was an artist with a sound so distinct and a legacy so far-reaching that it’s virtually impossible to think of her in anything less than exalted terms. Her legitimate place in the canon of great singers alongside Johnny Cash and Hank Williams isn’t just because of their shared twang, but because of the simple fact that it’s hard to imagine them residing among mortals, even when they were alive.
“Growing up, there wasn’t a whole lot of country music in New Jersey,” says Visqueen frontwoman Rachel Flotard, one of five local female musicians participating in Sweet Dreams, a tribute to Cline, this Thursday. “But whenever ‘Crazy’ would come on, I always remember thinking there was this otherworldly quality about this woman…even though I didn’t know who she was ’til much later, I always remember that song. She is very ‘from space,’ plus you have all the reverb and the way she sings—she’s so low.”
Cline indeed possessed a contralto, the deepest and richest of female vocal ranges, and it was that rare and spellbinding tone that made songs like “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Walking After Midnight” such endearing and bewitching classics. Sweet Dreams is the brainchild of long-time Patsy fan and Seattle native Debra Heesch, who had been kicking around the concept for quite some time. “I have always wanted to plan it for Patsy’s birthday or the anniversary of her passing,” says Heesch. “It seemed that I would miss the date or it just wasn’t a good time to work on it. But a couple of months ago, I realized—I can do it!”
Heesch was able to secure space at the Columbia City Theater on the exact date of the 1963 plane crash that took Cline off this mortal coil at the tender age of 30. She then began contacting local ladies who she thought worthy of embodying those celebrated songs, including pop-punk firecracker Flotard, rising alt-country siren Star Anna, husky-voiced veteran Kim Virant, vivid storyteller Kristen Ward, and classically-trained pro Victoria Wimer Contreras. “They are all amazing singers,” Heesch adds. “They all jumped on board since Patsy is a big influence to them as well.”
“She makes hard songs feel very easy,” continues Flotard, though she acknowledges that putting her own voice to Cline’s selections (rarer gems “Lovesick Blues,” “San Antonio Rose,” and “Why Can’t He Be You?”) is a real challenge. “The [backing] band is playing it note for note, so there’s not a lot of room to interpretive-dance your way out of it,” she laughs. That six-piece backing band includes Heesch’s husband Jeff Rouse (who also plays bass with Duff Mc-Kagan’s Loaded) and other local luminaries like piano player Ty Bailie (Department of Energy), guitarists Gary Westlake (Flight to Mars) and Leif Andersen (Siren’s Sister), drummer Chris Friel (Goodness), and pedal steel player Kevin Suggs. The musicians have all been rehearsing in Heesch’s West Seattle home for the past several weeks.
“I went to her house and there was just a sign taped to the door that said ‘Patsy,'” describes Flotard. “I open the door and [everyone’s in there] just laughing, drinking wine, and practicing together. We got to hear each other sing our songs and get comfortable.” She especially appreciates the way the camaraderie of the rehearsals echoes much of what she admires about Cline’s proto-feminist character. “What I’ve learned about her is that she was so supportive of other chicks, like Dottie West and Loretta Lynn. For as top-of-the-heap as she was, I think her supportive spirit was what really made her shine in other areas. It was a very cool experience to be with all these girls, exactly how someone like Patsy would have wanted it. It’s kind of cheesy to think that way, but that kind of is what this is about. No one is trying to be her; this isn’t Patsy karaoke. We’re just coming from a place where it’s fun to throw a party celebrating a cool woman.”