The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Day Country Music Died

People live, people die. It's an inescapable fact of human existence.

If  people are famous when they die, the world takes notice.

If they're famous and they die with other famous people in the same incident or at the same time, their death can become a kind of historical marker for a shift in the direction or substance of culture.

The history of pop and rock music was significantly altered in February of 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and their pilot Roger Peterson were all killed in a small plane crash in Iowa. This event was immortalized in Don McLean's "American Pie" in 1971 as "The Day the Music Died."

Four years later, on March 5, 1963, the landscape of country music and pop music was abruptly changed as well when Lloyd Estel "Cowboy" Copas, Patsy Cline, Harold Franklin "Hawkshaw" Hawkins, and pilot Randy Hughes, who was Cline's manager and Copas' son-in-law, were killed in a plane crash near Dyersburg, Tennessee.

In years to come, Patsy Cline's legend grew, but at the time of the crash, most people in country music and its fans as well would have said Cowboy Copas was the bigger star of the three. His first big hit was in 1946 with "Filipino Baby," and he had a string of others on into the early '50s including "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered," and "'Tis So Sweet to be Remembered." Then his career went South for a few years until 1960 when his biggest hit ever, "Alabam," reached the top of the charts and stayed at No. 1 for three months. Copas was an excellent guitar player and he demonstrates his fast thumb picking style in this video of "Alabam."

Patsy Cline was a recognized and honored star in country music at the time of her death in '63, but since that time her legend has grown. The re release of her great records, the successful stage plays about her life, and the movies and TV shows about her have made her the most famous of the four who died that stormy night back in '63.

Wiki says that Cline (born Virginia Patterson Hensley)
was best known for her rich tone, emotionally expressive and bold contralto voice and her role as a country music industry pioneer. Along with Kitty Wells, she helped pave the way for women as headline performers in the genre. Cline's was cited as an inspiration by singers in several genres....Her hits began in 1957 with Donn Hecht's "Walkin' After Midnight", Harlan Howard's "I Fall to Pieces", Hank Cochran's "She's Got You", Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and ended in 1963 with Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams".
In the years before she died, Cline bought her dream home in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, which is part of the Metro Nashville area. Several stars from that era made their homes in Goodlettsville and neighboring Hendersonville; today's stars seem to prefer the much more upscale area in Williamson county.

Here's Patsy Cline's last recorded song, "I'll Sail My Ship Alone." This is a nice video with lots of candid shots of Cline.

The third country star who died that fateful night was Virginia native, Hawkshaw Hawkins. Although he began his career back in the late '40s, Hawkins had only just begun to achieve the kind of success that would have more than likely propelled him to a star status comparable to that of Cline and Copas at the time.

Wiki says that
He gained his nickname as a boy after helping a neighbor track down two missing fishing rods: the neighbor dubbed him "Hawkshaw" after the title character in the comic strip, Hawkshaw the Detective. He traded five trapped rabbits for his first guitar, and first performed on WCMI-AM in Ashland, Kentucky. At 16, he won a talent competition and a job on WSAZ-AM in Huntington, where he formed Hawkshaw and Sherlock with Clarence Jack. 
The 6'5" Hawkins served in WWII and won four battle stars at the Battle of the Bulge. His first two recordings with King Records in the later '40s were "Pan American" and "Doghouse Boogie." Both were top ten country hits.

He continued to record through the '50s but didn't have a hit until he recorded "Lonesome 7-7203" in 1962. The song didn't appear on the charts until March 2, 1963, three days before his death. By March 23, the song had reached No. 1 status and it remained in that position for twenty five weeks.

Randy Hughes, pilot of ill fated Piper Comanche, was a studio guitarist and Cline's manager. He signed on with her in 1959 and was instrumental in getting her to change labels; she went from Four Star to Decca. Because of this change Hughes was able to get her records produced by "legendary female-singer country music producer" Owen Bradley. Bradley was a proponent of the more lushly produced "Nashville Sound" which Cline initially feared. But he and Hughes eventually persuaded her to accept this style change which led her to greater success with "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy."

Most country stars of the time toured in car caravans or in buses. But Hughes, who had hopes of managing several stars, felt the Comanche would be a more convenient way for his clients to travel. The weather was bad that Tuesday when he and his three traveling companions took off from the Kansas City airport. They stopped once in Missouri to refuel and then made it as far as Dyersburg, Tennessee, where they landed at 4:30 p.m. Hughes was not instrument rated and the owners of the Dyersburg airport urged him to wait till morning when the weather was supposed to improve. But Hughes, Cline, Copas, and Hawkins were all tired and wanted to get back to Nashville which was just 170 miles away. So, they took off into the stormy night.

The wreckage of the plane was found in a forest in Camden, Tennessee, roughly 90 miles from Nashville.

Kathy Hughes, Randy's wife, faced a double tragedy that day; she lost both her husband and her father, Cowboy Copas, in the crash.

(The Tennessean's Peter Cooper has a long and interesting article about the crash, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath if you'd like to do more reading about these performers.)

The contributions these stars might have made had they not been killed that night in March fifty years ago are obviously unknown, but judging from their prior accomplishments, it's my opinion that whatever they might have done had they lived would have altered the shape, culture, and direction of country music.


  1. I have a little "On This Day" widget on my iGoogle home page and the crash was one of the featured items yesterday. Which made me wonder if you'd post something, and here you have. Your post is quite beyond "something," though. You'd have made an excellent historian, Dan.

  2. I gotta get me one of those widgets. As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm blocked now and I was hoping blogging a bit would help me break through. As I wrote this piece I felt like I was sorta forcing things; the thing took me over 3 days to finish. It was a struggle, but I finally did and believe it helped. And thanks for the kudos; I appreciate your comments, as always.