Heartache is undoubtedly the emotion we most associate with Patsy Cline—from mulling in loneliness after midnight to longing for a lover who’s left, with only a picture to placate the pain. But on the iconic “Crazy,” released 55 years ago this month, the palpable pain we hear isn’t wholly rooted in a tale of lost love. In those final three years of her life, at an intense new height in her career, Cline was sure her days on Earth were numbered. And she was right.
She was on crutches when she recorded the song, penned by Willie Nelson, in August 1961. Just months before, Cline had survived a serious car accident that sent her flying through a windshield, leaving her with a broken wrist, dislocated hip, rib injuries and a head wound. It was the country music pioneer’s second major accident and while wigs and makeup concealed her scars and headbands helped alleviate constant pressure, a feeling that her life was near its end took hold. Cline reportedly told Loretta Lynn, June Carter Cash and Dottie West as much, and legend has it that a week before her death, at a Grand Old Opry performance, she remarked to a singer for The Jordanaires, “Honey, I’ve had two bad ones. The third one will either be a charm or it’ll kill me.”
The fateful plane ride occurred only two years later. Cline’s legacy has never stopped growing, though; she’s more famous now than ever. Of course, there is no shortage of artists who’ve paid homage in song. A few renditions, however, especially evoke the tragically macabre side of “Crazy,” and these five rank among the best in drawing out its darkness.
Known from the ‘70s as the “Country Sunshine” girl for her eponymous Coca-Cola jingle-turned-single, the Tennessee native’s close friendship with Cline helped shape her career—and ultimately, it may have influenced her death, too.
West was there on the night of the ‘61 car crash; she picked glass from Cline’s hair and watched her refuse treatment until everyone else had been helped. She was there before the plane crash too, offering Cline a ride home after that final Kansas City concert (which, by the way, was a benefit for a DJ who’d died in a car crash a year before).
In 1991, West experienced her own major accident. Late to a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, she asked a neighbor to speed her there, and they crashed. Likely inspired by Cline, she insisted he get treatment first. She died as a result of internal injuries.
West’s cover of “Crazy” was released in 1964, a year after Cline’s passing. Imagining how she felt in that recording session is alone enough to draw out the song’s intense sadness.
At the band’s 10th anniversary show in New York City in 2012, fans were somewhat surprised to hear Jaime Hince and Alison Mosshart roll out “Crazy.” Plugging in gave it a rock and roll grit, but the patient pace allowed the sparseness to play a role as significant as Mosshart’s subtle rasp. Kneeling before the crowd, perfectly timed shakiness and her audible breathing between lines rounded out a tinge of creeping mania, something never before explored in “Crazy.”
Nelson originally wrote “Crazy” for Billy Walker, but he turned it down, calling it a “girl’s song.” Cline picked it up from there, but not until it was reshaped as a ballad—she didn’t take well to Nelson’s signature speech-style vocals on the demo he’d recorded.
While it was a resounding hit for Cline, it also appeared on Nelson’s 1962 album …And Then I Wrote, and he continues to revisit the track during performances today. Every time he plays it, trademark Willie vocals and all, the weight of nostalgia is heavy, but the magic of the song shines through, like the lump in your throat when you remember the good times, and you smile through the tears.
The genre-hopping singer became the first woman to hit three million-selling LPs in a row with Hasten Down the Wind, her 1976 album that included a reworking of “Crazy.” Ronstadt’s way of giving depth to helium-high notes is striking, and she tapers them out with a graceful, whisper-like softness. While in pace it’s more akin to Nelson’s take, her vocals emanate a dizzying sorrow reminiscent of Cline’s version.
Blissfully devoid of any pop-country leanings, Brandi Carlile’s version at the Edmonton Folk Festival in 2011 is one of the most heart-wrenching covers that exists. Her delicate strumming takes a backseat to her flawless vocals, quivering at unexpected times, belting at others, and drawn out at the appropriate moments, at just the right intensity. It’s sure to give you chills.