Patsy Cline’s ‘I Fall to Pieces’ Is an Enduring Classic Despite Her Reservations
Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” is the grandmother of generations of moments that honor the affecting power of female voices singing country music. Released 60 years ago, on Jan. 30, 1961, the song teaches listeners that for as much as an artist believes they know about their voice, it's their listeners who always knows what they want, and when, where and how they wish to receive it.
Seven years and over a dozen singles into her country career, this unexpected creative detour expanded Cline’s artistic reach, led her to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and cemented her crossover appeal. Six decades after its release, “I Fall to Pieces” has achieved an even more significant impact: Artists including Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood and more have covered the legendary song. However, the gravitas delivered by Cline in her original version of the bittersweet ballad is the textbook definition of the gut-wrenching heartbreak that’s at the genre’s core.
As a study of phenomenal songwriting, “I Fall to Pieces” is praiseworthy because of its bittersweetly personal perspective. To Performing Songwriter’s Bill DeMain, Harlan Howard -- who co-wrote the song with Hank Cochran and composed it -- noted, "The toughest songs in the world to write are love songs … I'd rather get into a song about a relationship that's a little bit shaky or even tragic. That, in my mind, represents country music and the drama of the man-woman thing." Cline’s classic falls in line with this description, as it examines unrequited love from the perspective of a woman who feels as though she should be -- but, sadly, isn’t -- with her ideal mate.
Other artists, including Brenda Lee, were considered for “I Fall to Pieces” before Cline. However, Lee’s style erred more toward a pop-rock take on Big Band jazz, so a shuffling tune with a polished country edge felt out of her range, and Cline -- whose voice and style were totally unlike Lee’s -- stepped to the microphone.
However, Cline was originally less than enthused about “I Fall to Pieces.” As noted in a 2011 Rolling Stone article, while recording the song in November of 1960, Cline had a litany of concerns: The Jordanaires, Elvis Presley’s backing quartet, were slated to provide background vocals, but she worried that their deep, baritone voices would drown out her rich contralto. Also, as Cline was more familiar with yodeling over western swing arrangements, the appearance of a string section and orchestral elements familiar to the era’s countrified Nashville pop were worrisome to the singer.
Everything about the recording session that Cline disliked, in fact, adds to her performance.
Despite her reservations, Cline crafted one of country music’s ultimate performances. In Ellis Nassour’s 1989 biography of Cline, Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, Howard notes of the recording of “I Fall to Pieces, “Once Patsy got into the groove, she just caressed those lyrics and that melody so tenderly that it was just like satin. We knew we had magic in the can when, on the fourth take, every grown man in that studio was bawling like a baby.”
Intriguingly, Cline’s lack of enthusiasm about her vocal performance on “I Fall to Pieces” made way for its acclaim. Her relatively sedated approach -- described by Rolling Stone as “a nerve rubbed raw by heartbreak” -- was unusual for Cline at this point in her career, but given the song’s utterly heartbreaking subject matter, it works.
Everything about the recording session that Cline disliked, in fact, adds to her performance. To be heard over the Jordanaires in the mix, she sings clearer and more fully, in a throaty contralto; she’s so commanding that, in the final mix, you’re hard-pressed to hear the Jordanaires. The notes she sings also stay well within a defined range but fill every ounce of air in the measures they occupy. The tension that ensues between the music and the vocals allows Cline’s voice to emerge as more impactful.
All of these elements reflect certain time-honored elements of women’s country music performances. For example, Ronstadt, who covered “I Fall to Pieces” in 1971, had a remarkable vocal range that expanded from contralto to soprano with ease. Her voice is a far less compressed instrument than Cline’s was on her career-making hit: It soars past its contralto range, but it still reaches an apex, albeit a higher one. The song is more broadly reflective -- as if separated by time -- than the immediate stabbing pang of heartbreak evoked by Cline’s original.
Aaron Neville’s falsetto and Yearwood’s powerful mezzo-soprano, meanwhile, add an entirely different color to “I Fall to Pieces” that allows it to be slowed down and turned into much more of a pop-soul-leaning track. With two voices working in entirely different registers, there’s less of the original’s haunting tragedy and more plaintive, yet deep, heartbreak.
Two months after “I Fall to Pieces” reached No. 1, after an eight-month climb, Cline was involved in a serious car accident. By her release from the hospital in August of 1961, the song’s country popularity was waning; however, the efforts to push the song allowed for significant pop crossover success, and it finished the year as the No. 2 song on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Cline also appeared at the Grand Ole Opry 14 times in 1961 to perform the song.
The best way to consider the legacy of “I Fall to Pieces” -- and the voices it's inspired -- is to look no further than a 2013 presentation by Jordanaires members Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum regarding their legendary careers. In response to being asked about recording Cline’s timeless classic, Walker noted the following:
When we were recording “I Fall To Pieces,” we were all mesmerized by her low tones. However, she surprised us at the end [with some loud, western swing vamping]. When she was finished, she aggressively asked us, ‘Did [we] like that?’ I replied, ‘Patsy, you had us in the palm of your hand until the ending! It ruined the song.’ She then yelled at me, ‘That’s what Owen [Bradley, Cline’s producer] said!’ I replied, ‘Stick with what Owen said. You listen to him, and you’ll go places you never dreamed you could go.’
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