Patsy Cline fans curious about the early days of her brief but highly acclaimed country music career will finally be able to do more than just drive by her old house in Winchester and snap a picture.
The Patsy Cline Historic House will open Aug. 2 as a memorial to the singer who recorded such classics as "Crazy" and "I Fall to Pieces" before dying in a plane crash in 1963. Visitors will be able to step through the door of 608 S. Kent St. and back in time some six decades for a glimpse of how Virginia "Ginny" Patterson Hensley lived from her mid-teens to mid-20s, as she emerged from small-town obscurity to become one of music's most enduring and influential superstars.
"The fact that her music seems timeless brings a whole new group in every generation that keeps her alive," said Cline's daughter, Julie Fudge of Nashville. "Her career was a small amount of years, and she had lots of accolades, but I don't think she imagined the things that would come after she died."
Cline's husband, Charlie Dick of Nashville, said Patsy's premature death at age 30 and the question of how much more she might have accomplished is "part of the mystique" that continues to fuel interest in her life and career. But Cline's sophisticated, genre-defying voice also explains her iconic status, he said.
"Her voice was the first of that type in country music," Dick said, noting its appeal to a broader audience than hardcore country fans.
In fact, Cline biographer Douglas Gomery said many of Cline's hit records made both the country and pop charts.
"It's really complex music," said Gomery, a retired University of Maryland media studies professor, resident scholar at the Library of American Broadcasting and author of "Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon."
For decades, Cline's fans have had to satisfy their curiosity about her early years in Winchester by cruising past her once-dilapidated former home on Kent Street, dropping by the drugstore where she worked as a teenage soda jerk, and paying homage at her gravesite just outside the Shenandoah Valley city of 26,000 that is known for apples and Civil War sites.
The public's ongoing fascination with the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame prompted a group of Winchester residents to establish a nonprofit corporation, Celebrating Patsy Cline Inc., which purchased and renovated the home. Cline moved to the house with her mother and two siblings in November 1948, the year after her parents split up. She lived there until June 1957, except for a few years during her first marriage to Gerald Cline. Her mother, Hilda Hensley, rented at first but later bought the home.
Cline was living in the tiny two-story frame house when she signed her first record deal, made her Grand Ole Opry debut and won Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts television competition — a sort of '50s version of American Idol — by singing "Walkin' After Midnight," which became her first hit record.
"There's no museum for her, so this is the actual place that she lived the longest in her short life," said Gomery, who also is Celebrating Patsy Cline's historian. "She really made the transition from amateur singer to professional singer when she lived there."
Said Fudge: "I think when you go into the house, you will kind of feel like this is a snapshot of what it would have been like to visit when Mom lived there."
What visitors will see is a home that was typical for families of modest means during that era: small rooms, low ceilings, scaled-down furniture and very little storage space. Celebrating Patsy Cline spent about $100,000 renovating the house and equipping it with appliances and furniture intended to replicate the way the home looked when the singer lived there. Only a few items are original.
The first stop is the living room — a compact space with gleaming, refinished pine floors that Ron Hottle, president of Celebrating Patsy Cline, said predate the Civil War. The house originally was an early-1800s log cabin, and some of the original logs are exposed under Plexiglas next to the front door.
Visitors may notice one of the few nods to modern building codes: a wheelchair ramp into the living area. Central heating and air also was added, Hottle said.
Decor was kept to a minimum to allow room for visitors: a floral-print sofa with lace doilies, an end table holding a turquoise lamp and black rotary-dial telephone and ashtray, a small chair flanked by a rack of vintage magazines, a 1951 television, family photos and an 8-by-10 of Cline in one of her cowgirl outfits on the fireplace mantel.
In the dining room, visitors will see an old Singer sewing machine like the one her mother used to make a living as a seamstress, and to make costumes similar to one displayed on a mannequin a few feet away. Hottle said some of Cline's original costumes, still faintly smelling of the cigarette smoke that hung in the 1950s honky-tonk air, are in climate-controlled storage for display in a museum that Celebrating Patsy Cline hopes to eventually open elsewhere in Winchester.
Adjacent to the dining room is a galley-style kitchen that was added when Cline lived there. Originally a porch, the room is equipped with '50s appliances and basic white cabinets packed with souvenirs that will be available for purchase — coffee mugs, assorted trinkets, videos and Gomery's book.
Upstairs is the lone bedroom that was shared by all four family members. Pat Brannon, Cline's cousin, remembers the sleeping arrangements: Patsy in the twin bed closest to the door, her mother and younger sister in a double bed on the other side of an apple-crate nightstand, and her little brother in another single bed tucked into the corner. Two tiny closets and a four-drawer dresser — one drawer for each family member — provided all the storage space the family needed.
"People just didn't have a lot of clothes back then like they do now," Brannon said.
Brannon, who spent considerable time in the house as a child, said the restoration accurately portrays 608 S. Kent St. as she remembers it. She also said it brings back personal memories of helping out around the house, bringing in firewood and watching her Aunt Hilda on the Singer, working the treadle as the bobbin spun out thread for one of Patsy's fringed cowgirl outfits.
Hottle said many of the 20 docents who will conduct tours of the house have personal memories of Cline to share. Although those tours will begin Aug. 2, the official ribbon-cutting will not be until Labor Day weekend, when the Patsy Cline Fan Club has its annual get-together.
If You Go...
PATSY CLINE HISTORIC HOUSE: 608 S. Kent St., Winchester, Va.;http://www.celebratingpatsycline.org , 540-662-5555. Tour hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sundays, noon-4 p.m. Adults, $6, seniors over 60 and children under 18, $5; children under 10 and military with ID, free.