Country Music Still Remembers 50 Years Later
Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Randy Hughes remembered, 50 years after plane crash
Fifty years ago, on Sunday, March 3, 1963, Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas shouldn’t have been crying. Things were, after all, going well. Copas, who burst onto the country scene with four consecutive Top 10 hits in the 1940s, wound up on the cover of “Billboard” magazine. After that, he endured an eight-year slide in popularity before storming back in 1960 with a 12-week No. 1 hit called “Alabam,” a song that restored his standing as a major country star.
That Sunday, the 49-year-old Copas was in Kansas City, Kan., with his friends, playing three shows to raise money for the family of a disc jockey named Jack Call, who had died in a car wreck. For $1.50, people could see and hear Copas, Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, George Jones, Billy Walker, Georgie Riddle, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, George McCormick and others as they sang their hits.
It wasn’t self-pity or depression that brought the Cowboy to tears; it was a post-show meeting with a longtime fan, a woman with cancer who told him that she wasn’t long for this earth. Copas introduced the woman to Riddle, and when she walked away, Riddle said, the singing star grew emotional.
“He said to me, ‘Poor thing, she only has six months to live,’ ” Riddle says. “It was ironic. Because Copas had much less time than that.”
Plenty to bury
Fewer than 48 hours later, Copas and fellow “Grand Ole Opry” stars Cline and Hawkins were passengers on a doomed plane piloted by Randy Hughes, who was Cline’s manager, a talented musician and stage performer and the husband of Copas’ daughter, Kathy. Around 7 p.m. on March 5, Hughes’ plane dove into the hard, cold winter woods near Camden, Tenn., 85 miles west of Nashville. The plane’s impact was like an egg hurled to the ground. No survivors. No chance.
That crash marked an unprecedented loss to the country music community. March of 1963 was a month of tragedy and devastation in Nashville. Days after the plane went down, on the same day of a Cline memorial, Jack Anglin of popular duo Johnnie & Jack died in a single-car accident on Due West Avenue in Madison. And later that month, former “Opry” star “Texas” Ruby Fox perished in a trailer fire.
In the half-century following the plane crash, Cline has been the subject of a feature film, a stage play and several biographies, while the lives of Copas, Hawkins and Hughes have been less studied. The focus on Cline has often been at the exclusion of the others, and that has been hurtful to some of those left in tragedy’s wake.
That focus has at times put history in the least fun of funhouse mirrors.
“When that plane went down, Copas was the biggest star onboard,” Cline’s widower, Charlie Dick, told “Opry” announcer, country music historian and WSM air personality Eddie Stubbs five years ago over the WSM airwaves.
“Usually, today, Patsy seems to get top billing,” says Dick in a Tennessean interview today. “But Patsy was a big fan of Copas and Hawk, and they were stars. Everybody on that plane was important to the music business. And all of them were top dogs.”
Copas was a veteran favorite and a deft guitarist. A soaring vocalist, Cline had already scored in the 1960s with hits “I Fall To Pieces,” “Crazy” and “She’s Got You,” and in Hughes, 34, she had a sharp and tenacious manager. Hawkins was a rising, charismatic star on a roll, married to future Country Music Hall of Famer Jean Shepard, and he had just released what would become his first and only No. 1 country hit, “Lonesome 7-7203.”
Tragedy needs no resume, though. Loved ones do not mourn vocal stylists, affable entertainers or industry power players. They mourn mothers, wives, husbands and fathers.
Hawkshaw Hawkins and his wife, Jean Shepard, both Grand Ole Opry singers, proudly show off their baby, Don Robin, in their living room Dec. 13, 1961. Their first baby weighed in at 8-pounds, 7-ounces at St. Thomas Hospital and was named after the couple’s Opry friends Don Gibson and Marty Robbins. (Photo: Jimmy Ellis/ file / The Tennessean
“I remember the morning Hawk left, he bent over the baby’s crib,” says Shepard, who was eight months pregnant when the plane went down and had a 1-year-old son. “He bent over the baby’s crib and said, ‘I want another one just like that.’ ”
Harold Franklin Hawkins Jr. was another one just like that, born April 8, 1963, less than a month after the crash.
In the coming years, Shepard grew exasperated at the extent to which Cline’s death was emphasized and the others were set into the background.
“A lot of people think during this time that I’ve hated Patsy Cline,” Shepard says. “And that’s not the story at all. I resented the way it was presented, like she was the only person on that airplane. … I lost a husband. I lost as much as Charlie Dick did. He lost a wife.”
Shepard and Dick are old and dear friends, and they understand each other. They’ve spoken about all of this, and they are in agreement.
“The person who lost the most was Kathy,” Shepard says. “She lost her father and her husband. I thought she had a lot more to bury than we did.”
True enough, but they all had plenty to bury.
‘A long day’
Saturday night, March 2, Patsy Cline played three shows in Birmingham with Tex Ritter, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich and Flatt & Scruggs. The next morning, she and Charlie Dick flew to East Nashville’s Cornelia Fort Airpark in Randy Hughes’ little plane. Country music travel in those days usually involved back roads and hassles, and the Comanche was a way to sail far above those things.
“He didn’t know how to fly when he bought it,” says Kathy Hughes. “But Randy had high aspirations. As a manager, if he had a stable of stars he’d use that plane even more.”
Copas and Hawkins played the “Opry” that Saturday night.
Sunday morning, while Cline, Dick and Hughes were in the air, Kathy Hughes prepared fried chicken, and Hawkins and Copas played with Copas’ 11-year-old son, Mike, at Copas’ home. Kathy, her father and Hawkins then took the short ride to Cornelia and met Hughes’ plane. Charlie Dick was heading home — or, as he threatened, down to Tootsie’s to spend the previous night’s earnings on beer.
The Kansas City flight proceeded without incident, other than Cline’s complaints about how cold it was on the plane, and the performers arrived in time for the first of the day’s three shows at 2 p.m. Promoter Hap Peebles, disc jockey Guy Smith and country music artist Billy Walker organized the performances, which were designed to raise money to aid the family of the late disc jockey Call.
Fifty years later, it’s difficult to imagine scores of top-drawer country artists giving up many hours of personal time to help a radio personality’s family. These days, Kansas City is an eight-hour drive from Nashville. In 1963, taking back roads that were then the main roads, it was a significantly longer trip. Hughes’ plane made the excursion possible for Cline, Copas and Hawkins.
Cline and Hawkins, in particular, were reluctant to make the trip and eager to return. Cline, 30, was exhausted: She spent much of the past year doing four shows per day at The Mint in Las Vegas, and she wanted to be around her children, 4-year-old Julie and 2-year-old Randy. Hawkins, 41, had a baby at home, and his wife, “Opry” member Shepard, was soon to give birth to their second son. Hawkins was a horseman, and he had a mare ready to foal as well.
Despite those concerns, the performers played three fine shows that day. They were professionals, even when playing a show that didn’t pay anything but expenses, and they brought full focus to their time onstage.
“These artists were part of country music’s golden era, and its greatest generation,” Stubbs asserts. “What they witnessed and were part of professionally took place during a very important part of the development of our industry. It was a special time, when it was more about the music, the family of musicians and entertainers, the closeness that bonded them and the genuine love they had for what they were doing.”
In between shows, Hawkins, Cline, Copas and the others greeted well-wishers. This was not an age when country musicians sought to, or could really afford to, hide in sequestered backstage areas. To their fans, they were not distant idols. More like distant, friendly cousins.
Access was not to be gained, it was a given, and the financial margins were small enough that selling and autographing promotional photos was often the difference between a successful appearance and a middling one. Interactions with fans were crucial, and performing artists were ambassadors for a Nashville that was still in its infancy as a music center and as an international tourist destination.
When those fans visited Nashville and the “Grand Ole Opry” at the Ryman Auditorium, they were likely to find performers drinking and socializing at Tootsie’s.
“Patsy was there a lot,” Riddle says. “You’d be telling jokes, and she’d come up with some dingers, too. She was kind of like one of the guys. Fun-loving. It was always, ‘Hello, hoss, how you doing?’ ”
“Opry” star Billy Walker, who had gathered most of the Kansas City talent, was slated to fly back to Nashville on Hughes’ plane, with Hawkins scheduled to be on a 6 a.m. commercial flight. But Walker received an urgent message Sunday night: His wife’s father had suffered a heart attack in Texas, and he needed to rush back home. Knowing the commercial flight would be faster than the private plane, Hawkins gave Walker his airline ticket and agreed to fly with Hughes, Cline and Copas.
After the third Kansas City show, Riddle and Cline spent a half hour talking at a reception thrown at the Town House motor hotel. The conversation was pleasant, not profound.
“We were talking about how it had been a long day,” Riddle says.
Monday morning, it was clear that another long day was in store. Storms halted all private flights out of Kansas City’s Fairfax Airport. Billy Walker was back in Nashville by 9 a.m., to care for his children while his wife went to Texas, and Hughes, Hawkins, Cline and Copas had to burn a day in Kansas City.
“They got weathered in,” says Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson. “I’ve been out with entertainers so many times when everyone gets awfully impatient. You get a case of what I call ‘Get Home-itis.’ It’s ‘Let’s go home.’ ”
Tuesday morning, the weather wasn’t much better and their impatience was heightened. The plane Hughes had purchased for convenience was proving less convenient than a car, and certainly less so than the tour bus that Cline and Dick dreamed of buying. Hughes decided to get back by hopping from small airport to small airport, waiting for storms to clear the area before taking off for the next short haul. They made it as far as Dyersburg, Tenn., northeast of Memphis and just east of Arkansas, and landed around 4:30 p.m.
In Dyersburg, roughly 170 miles from Nashville via nonstop flight, they were met by Evelyn and Bill Braese, the couple who ran the airport. Impressed to be meeting the country stars, the Braeses also were dubious about Hughes’ notion of flying to Nashville. Major storms roared to the east. The Braeses advised Hughes not to fly, and they arranged for motel rooms for the Nashville group.
“I talked to Randy in Dyersburg,” says Kathy Hughes. “He asked me how the weather was in Nashville. I said it had been horrible all day, but I looked out the window and said, ‘It has stopped raining, and it looks like I can see the sun trying to set.’ He said, ‘Do me a favor and call Cornelia Fort and tell them to turn the lights on. We’re going to make it in probably an hour.’ ”
‘Something to look forward to’
Kathy Copas Hughes called Shepard and Dick to tell them when the troupe would finally be arriving. And Shepard gave her baby son a bath in the kitchen sink.
“It was beginning to get dusky dark,” Shepard says. “And the most horrible feeling come over me that had ever come over me in my life. I just stood there a couple of minutes and kind of froze. I thought I was going into labor. … That’s about the time the plane crash happened.”
The aftermath was chaotic and horrific. Pieces of the plane were strewn about the Camden forest: a wing in an oak tree, the engine divoted six feet into the ground. There was a kindness to the impact’s violence: No one on board felt a thing. They did not suffer. They were among friends.
WSM radio informed listeners, including family members, that a plane carrying “Opry” regulars Cline, Copas, Hawkins and Hughes was missing. The plane was discovered around daybreak. Singing, songwriting genius Roger Miller had been with Dick late into the night, and he drove to try and find the site while Dick stayed at home with his children. Miller got there in the morning and screamed at the scavengers who were already sifting through the woods, collecting ghastly souvenirs in the hours before authorities secured the scene, around 1 p.m. on March 6.
Cline’s remains went first to her home for a wake, and she is buried in her hometown of Winchester, Va.
Hughes’, Copas’ and Hawkins’ bodies are buried at Forest Lawn cemetery, and their preparations were made at Phillips Robinson Funeral Home on Gallatin Road. By Wednesday evening, the victims’ loved ones welcomed mourners.
“When I was in mourning about their deaths, the first thought in my mind was, ‘Kiddo, you’re not with your people anymore,’ ” says Kathy Copas Hughes. “My husband and my father … it was a shocking thing. It numbs you for a while. But country music people, we kind of cling to each other. We all take sorrow according to our background and what we believe. If you don’t have anything to hang onto, it has to be the most horrible thing in the world. I believe I had divine help.”
Help came from many places.
Hughes and Ferlin Husky had started a publishing company, and Husky insisted that Kathy Copas Hughes, who had no publishing experience, retain half the company. That insistence meant she kept half the proceeds from country and gospel smash “On The Wings Of A Dove,” and she used that money to put herself and her two sons through college.
Marty Robbins wrote a song about Shepard’s situation called “Two Little Boys,” and he gave writer’s credit to Don Robin Hawkins and Harold Hawkins, Hawkshaw and Shepard’s sons, the second of whom was born April 8, 1963.
At Cline’s memorial service on Thursday, March 7, Bill Anderson sat in a pew at Phillips Robinson, just in front of Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright. Wells was the “Queen of Country Music,” despondent over the death of a potential successor. Wright, her husband, was half of groundbreaking duo Johnnie & Jack, along with his step-brother Jack Anglin.
“Getting up to leave, I spoke to Johnnie for a quick minute,” Anderson says. “A few minutes later, I saw Johnnie was walking on the little porch outside the funeral home, just bawling like a baby. Someone said they’d just told him that Jack was in an automobile wreck and they think he’s dead.”
Word spread immediately. Anglin was as much a part of the close-knit community as were the crash victims. Now, five were gone.
“If they’d lived, Copas would be 99, Jack Anglin 96, Hawkshaw 91, Randy 84 and Patsy 80,” says Stubbs. “We can only imagine what they’d be like if they were with us. As it was, they left us in the prime of their lives. Career-wise, they were all in a good place. The records were happening and show dates were on the books. They’d each had success and faced their share of tough times. But the present was good, and the future was something to look forward to.”
That future went dark, in deep, cruel woods and at a sharp and deadly bend on Due West Avenue.
Their music remains, unscratched and unsullied, at once timeless and young.
Contact Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show pays tribute
On Wednesday, March 6, 2013, from 8-11 p.m., 650 AM WSM will present its annual tribute to Jack Anglin, Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Randy Hughes. Confirmed guests include Kathy Copas Hughes, Charlie Dick and Jack Anglin’s nephew, Bobby Wright. In addition to the radio broadcast, the show will be streamed at www.wsmonline.com.
A river of people flow into Forrest Lawn Memorial Garden to see the flower-laden graves of four Grand Ole Opry stars buried there March 10, 1963. Buried in the cemetery are Cowboy Copas, Randy Hughes, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Jack Anglin. Pasty Cline was buried in Winchester, Va. (Photo: Joe Rudis / File: The Tennessean)
The lives of those lost, March 5 and 7, 1963
In March 1963, Patsy Cline was a rising star in country music, with a powerful and nuanced voice capable of delivering up-tempo country numbers, pop-leaning ballads and almost anything else she decided to perform. After her death, Cline became an iconic figure. Among the most influential vocalists in country music history, her records are studied and emulated. Duplication, though, has proved a tougher trick.
“She was a hell of a singer,” says her husband, Charlie Dick, a biased and entirely correct source.
Mandy Barnett, who has often played the starring role in stage productions of “Always: Patsy Cline,” says, “She probably had to scrap quite a bit to get by. A lot of people that come from upbringings like that end up being people that have the biggest hearts. That’s one thing that comes across when she sings: how much emotion and passion she had as a person.”
“His personality just pulled everybody in,” fan Linda Goode says, while wife Jean Shepard comments, “He was the first professional entertainer I’d been around for any length of time. One of the best entertainers in the business.”
Hawkins’ entertaining went beyond music. He carried a Wild West show on the road with him, complete with two horses, a family of Native Americans and a bullwhip.
“I had to hold his targets for him,” Shepard says. “He like to cut my nose off one night.”
When the plane went down, Hawkins had just released “Lonesome 7-7203,” which would become his first and only No. 1 country record.
Copas seamlessly integrated his life as a performer and his life as a husband and father.
“Daddy was Daddy, onstage or at home,” Kathy says.
“As I grew older, I realized not everyone had a singing troubadour for a father.”
A more-than-capable musician and entertainer, Randy Hughes decided he would make his greatest country music mark guiding others’ careers as a manager. He was both enterprising and fearless: As a driver, he was sometimes called “The Hundred Mile an Hour Man,” and he had no inhibitions about learning to fly the small plane he bought to attract clients and make traveling to shows less grueling.
“He was a giving guy,” says his widow, Kathy Hughes. “He was also a young man on his way up. Whatever he was going to do next was going to be bigger and better, which is why he had the plane.”
Hughes and Copas often joked with one another, and that side of their relationship ramped up when Randy asked for Copas’ daughter’s hand in marriage.
“When I told my dad that Randy was going to come over and talk to him about us getting married, Daddy said, ‘When’s he coming?’ ” Kathy says. “I said, ‘He’ll be here on Saturday after a show at WSM.’ Daddy said, ‘OK, I’ll be right here.’ When Randy drove up and came in, Dad was sitting in the den with his shotgun across his lap.”
Half of country duo Johnnie & Jack, Jack Anglin was a versatile singer and musician. Between 1951 and 1962, Johnnie & Jack notched 15 consecutive Top 20 country singles, including the propulsive “Poison Love” and the chart-topping “(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely,” also a hit for the Statler Brothers in the 1980s.
“His tenor singing was admired by many in the business, including Earl Scruggs and Curly Seckler,” says Country DJ Hall of Famer Eddie Stubbs. “Listen to Kitty Wells’ monster hit of ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ and you’ll hear Jack’s rhythm and bluegrass style guitar runs all through that piece. Johnnie was quick to admit that Jack’s vocal and musical ability were much superior to his. Jack did not have the interest or skills in the business end that Johnnie did, so their efforts complemented each other in making the act successful.”
Click here to see a Tennessean photo gallery from the 1963 plane crash that killed Cowboy Copas, Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Randy Hughes, as well as photos of their memorial services and from their careers.
Posted on March 2, 2013 by Peter Cooper