Commercial success eluded Patsy Cline throughout the 1950s in no small part due to Owen Bradley’s sometimes radical (for the day) experimentation with a wide variety of musical styles, as they searched to find her niche. In an era in which Kitty Wells was the primary example of what a girl singer, as they were known at the time, should sound like, Patsy’s more polished vocal style was a hard sell to country audiences, despite her obvious talent. Patsy resisted Bradley’s efforts to push her in a more pop direction, for which he felt her voice was better suited. The emergence of rock and roll and the tremendous success of Elvis Presley perhaps made it inevitable that Patsy and Bradley would experiment with rockabilly. The final volume of Rhino Records’ trilogy of Patsy’s early recordings for Four Star, titled The Rockin’ Side, focuses on those rockabilly efforts.
The thirteen tracks were recorded between 1955 and 1959, spanning the duration of Patsy’s Four Star contract. W.S. Stevenson, which was the pseudonym for Four Star Music’s owner Bill McCall, shares songwriting credits on eight of the tracks. Despite her expressed preference for singing honky-tonk, Patsy sounds perfectly at ease with the rockabilly material, and one suspects that had any of these recordings caught on commercially, her career might well have taken a very different direction. She could easily have been a rival for Wanda Jackson and Rose Maddox for the title Queen of Rockabilly.
In keeping with the nature of early rock and roll, none of the songs on the album is lyrically deep, relying instead on the rhythm and Patsy’s vocal performances. The album opens with “Gotta Lot of Rhythm In My Soul”, which is reminiscent of Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock” and “Ain’t No Wheels On This Ship”, “Love, Love, Love Me, Honey Do”, and “Stop, Look and Listen” continue in a similar vein. “I Love You, Honey” is thematically similiar to Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time”. It’s more high-octane honky-tonk than rockabilly, and is a good showcase for Patsy’s voice. “I Don’t Wanta” — which is one of my favorites among Patsy’s Four Star recordings — and “Turn The Cards Slowly” are the closest to straight country music as this disc gets. We get a glimpse of Patsy’s blues style with “Never No More” and “In Care of the Blues”.
The most interesting track on this disc, “Too Many Secrets”, bears no resemblance whatsoever to rockabilly, and may have been an act of desperation on the part of Owen Bradley to find a breakthrough hit for Patsy. Recorded on April 25, 1957, while “Walkin’ After Midnight” was climbing the charts, it may well have been intended to be the follow-up to Patsy’s sole hit up to that time. Stylistically, it is in more of a 1950s, pre- rock and roll vein, complete with a full brass section and backing vocals from the ubiquitous Anita Kerr Singers. There is no way Bradley could have expected this record to find any traction at country radio, so it appears to have been one of the occasions when he managed to persuade Patsy to experiment with pop.
Admittedly, all of these tracks sound dated to 21st century ears, which is somewhat to be expected with rockabilly recordings, none of which sound contemporary, regardless of the artist. However, they are still quite enjoyable to listen to if one accepts them for what they are. At the very minimum, they provide an interesting look at the development of an American music icon, and provide further evidence that she could successfully sing any genre of music.
All three volumes in this Rhino Records trilogy are out of print, but used copies can still be found on Amazon. One of the challenges of covering artists from this era is that the LP had not yet come to dominate the market. Rather than focusing on a series of singles reviews, we decided to review some compilation albums of Cline’s early work. There are many such compilations on the market, which will serve as adequate substitutes should the albums we’ve chosen to review here prove to be difficult to obtain.