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Country's Day the Music Died

By Edited May 23, 2016 0 2

"Something touched me deep inside the day the music died."

Those words, from Don McLean's classic song "American Pie," coined the term "the day the music died" to describe February 3, 1959.  On that dark day in early rock music history, Buddy Holly, J.P. "the Big Bopper" Richardson, and Ritchie Valens perished in a plane crash following a concert in Iowa.

Country music suffered a similar fate four years later.  March 5, 1963 is country music's "day the music died."

Patsy Cline

It Began With Cactus Jack

In the older days of country music, the artists and the radio DJs were friends.  Country music was considered the music of the "common people," and the performers made frequent tour stops in small towns as well as the big cities.  Those tours almost always included a swing by the local country music radio station to promote the concert and the singer's latest single.

From these visits friendships were forged.  It wasn't just a professional relationship, either: musicians got to know the DJs and their families, and vice versa.  

One of the countless DJs who shared the professional and personal relationship with country music singers was Jack Wesley Call.  Known as "Cactus Jack," Call, a veteran of World War II, worked at radio stations KCKN, KANS, and KCMC in Kansas City, Missouri.  He had been on the job for about a week at KCMC when he was involved in a car wreck on January 24, 1963.  He died from his injuries the next day at the age of 39.  Call left behind a wife and two young sons who had suddenly lost their source of income.  (Remember, married women generally didn't work in those days, instead staying home and being "housewives.")

Several country music performers who had come to know Call during his years in radio banded together to hold a benefit concert to raise money for Call's widow and children.  The concert, scheduled on Sunday, March 3, 1963, had several heavy hitters:  Roy Acuff, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, George Jones, Billy Walker, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and rising superstar Patsy Cline.

Heading Home

After the show the stars went their separate ways, to other shows or back to Nashville.  Cline had arranged to fly to the show with her manager, Randy Hughes, as she had appeared in Birmingham, Alabama the previous evening.  Hughes' father-in-law, Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas, would fly back to Nashville with them.  Billy Walker, a rising star nicknamed "the Tall Texan," would also fly with them.  Harold "Hawkshaw" Hawkins was returning to Nashville on a commercial plane because his wife, country music singer Jean Shepard, was eight months pregnant.

Because of the weather the private plane wouldn't leave Kansas City that night.  When Billy Walker received a phone call that there had been a medical emergency in his family he began frantically searching for a way to get back to Nashville quickly.  Hawkins gave Walker his ticket.

"God was on my side," Billy Walker told the Nashville Banner newspaper four days later.

Copas and Cline

A TV show with Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline singing together

Tragedy Near Home

The weather in the Midwest is unpredictable in the spring.  It can be warm and sunny, cold and blustery, snowing, or thunderstorms, sometimes in the same day.  The weather, it was later determined, played a significant role in country music's version of "The Day the Music Died."

Bogged down by weather, pilot Randy Hughes was determined to get his superstar cargo back to Nashville.  There were other concerts to give, recording sessions to plan, and in Hawkins' case, a very pregnant wife to care for. 

On March 5, 1963 the quartet left Kansas City for Nashville.  Their first stop was in Rogers, Arkansas for fuel.  Their next stop was in Dyersburg, Tennessee, approximately 170 miles from Nashville.   Hughes, a pilot who was licensed only for visual flight, checked weather conditions. The weather at the time, it was later reported officially, was overcast, cold, and rainy.  Hughes was notified that the ceiling was low and no improvement was expected before sunset, and he was not cleared to fly at night (or "on instruments").  He said, however, that he had spoken with his wife (Kathy Copas Hughes, the daughter of Cowboy Copas) in Nashville, and she had informed him that it was sunny in Nashville.  

Kathy denied this, telling multiple Cline biographers that she told him it had been storming in Nashville all day; and, while it had quit raining, it was still overcast.  Randy may have simply lied to his passengers and the Dyersburg airport about what his wife had said in an attempt to get back into the plane and head for Nashville.

Hughes took off from the Dyersburg airport at approximately 6:05 p.m.  Less than 20 minutes later the plane crashed in a heavily wooded, hilly area outside of Camden, Tennessee, killing all four aboard.  The National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB), in its official ruling on the plane crash, blamed pilot error:  Hughes, untrained to fly solely by use of instruments, became disoriented in the low ceiling caused by the overcast, rainy conditions, and went into what is known in aviation as a "graveyard spiral."  (This is also was was ruled to be the cause of John Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash in 1999.)


The Nashville Banner's headline after the plane crash that killed Cowboy Copas, Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Randy Hughes. 


Lloyd Estel "Cowboy" Copas was born in Adams County, Ohio in 1913.  His career began in the late 1930s with fiddler Lester Vernon Storer, professionally known as "Natchee the Indian," on Ohio radio stations.  He moved to WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee briefly, then gained national attention when he became the lead vocalist for Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys.  He left that outfit and returned to Ohio, signing to King Records and appearing on WLW.  

Copas, probably because of his connections with Pee Wee King (no relation to the record label), was offered the songwriter rights to a song King had written.  Copas didn't have the $50 that King wanted for the rights, so the song didn't get sold.  Copas, however, did record the song, becoming the first person to do so.

The song in question was "Tennessee Waltz."  It became a national sensation when Patti Page later recorded the song, and is now an official state song of Tennessee.

Copas had a number of hits in the 1940s and 50s: "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered," "Hangman's Boogie," "Candy Kisses," "Breeze," and "Filipino Baby" were among his top ten hits.  He had a major comeback in 1960 with the song "Alabam," which was #1 for 12 weeks.

Copas was 59 years old.


Tennessee Waltz

Cowboy Copas was the first person to record this iconic song


Harold Franklin Hawkins was born in West Virginia in 1921.  His nickname, Hawkshaw, came from a Gus Mager comic strip, Hawkshaw the Detective.  He performed on radio stations around West Virginia before joining the Army in World War II. 

After his discharge he went to Cincinnati and signed on with King Records.  He had top ten songs with "Pan American" and "Dog House Boogie" in the 1940s.  Hawkins was also a performer on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree.

Hawkins moved to Nashville and married Jean Shepard, a fellow country singer who had enjoyed hits such as "A Dear John Letter" with Ferlin Husky and "Beautiful Lies."

The week before his death his song "Lonesome 7-7203" was released.  It became his only #1 hit.

Hawkshaw Hawkins was 41.

Hawkshaw Hawkins

Pan American, one of Hawk's early hits


Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Virginia in 1963, Patsy Cline seemed cursed.  She had survived two car wrecks, one of which nearly killed her and left her permanently scarred.  "Hoss," she told a friend, "I've survived two of 'em.  The third one will either be a charm, or it'll kill me."

She shot to fame as a winner on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show (think American Idol of the 50s).  Signed to Four Star Records, she quickly became a singing sensation and was picked up by Decca Records.  Her hits included "Walking After Midnight," "Crazy" (written by Willie Nelson), "I Fall to Pieces," and "Leavin' on Your Mind."  

Patsy Cline was 30.  She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, the first female solo act to be inducted and the third female overall (behind Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family).

Patsy Cline on the Arthur Godfrey Show

The Tragedy Didn't End There

A Fourth Opry Star Dies

Unlike the rock version of "The Day the Music Died," country's terrible tragedy had a second act.

On March 7 a memorial service was scheduled in Nashville for Patsy Cline (who would be buried in Virginia, unlike the others who were buried in Nashville).  En route to the service Jack Anglin, the tenor half of the country duo Johnnie & Jack, died after his car went off the road.  Anglin was 46.

Johnnie & Jack

One of their biggest hits, "Poison Love"

The Legacy

Time has not been kind to Cowboy Copas or Hawkshaw Hawkins.  Today they are afterthoughts, if thought of at all, to "the Patsy Cline plane crash."  Copas was a Hall of Fame-worthy performer with a string of hits that lasted 20 years.  Hawkins, while not at the level of success that Copas was, still was a bona fide star.  They deserve to be remembered.

There have been several books published on Cline as well as the film Sweet Dreams.  Cline was also a central figure in the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter.  John R. Simon spent a decade thoroughly researching Copas' life for the book Cowboy Copas and the Golden Age of Country Music.

Every year near March 5 WSM DJ and country music historian Eddie Stubbs hosts a radio program devoted to the memories of Copas, Cline, Hawkins, and Hughes.  He always has, as guests, friends and survivors.  They gather, as Stubbs says, to remember the loss as well as to celebrate the music of three greats in country music who were killed in country's version of "The Day the Music Died."



Mar 3, 2016 9:04pm
Interesting content and very nicely written!
Mar 10, 2016 6:55pm
Thank you so very much for your kind comments!
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