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Nite Out

She's not just a Patsy

[Times photo: Jamie Francis 2002]
C.J. Harding dresses the part and acts the part: She knows almost everything about Patsy’s Cline’s performances.

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 27, 2003

C.J. Harding has made a living playing country legend Patsy Cline. Now she's stepping out to sing her own songs as herself.

For more than eight years, C.J. Harding has made her living as someone else.

Now, finally, she's taking the stage as herself.

"This is a real breakaway for me: me being me," she says. 'It's something I've been working toward for a long time."

Audiences across Florida adore her as Patsy Cline. Her one-woman show about the 1950s and '60s country diva almost always sells out. As Patsy, Harding has sung at the Grand Ole Opry and opened for Ray Stevens and John Michael Montgomery. She's sold more than 2,000 CDs of herself singing Patsy songs.

"Playing Patsy pays well," Harding says. She can finally afford to be herself.

At least for four nights.

On Wednesday and April 3 in Largo, and on April 16 and 17 in Gulfport, Harding will sing seven of her original songs for the first time on a big stage. Her lyrical music is gospel and rock, country and bebop; her honey alto is sometimes a cappella, sometimes backed by a prerecorded band. She sings about everything from endangered elephants to Elvis.

"I'm sure my Patsy audiences will like my own stuff," she says. "But I also know they'll need something they'll recognize."

So, in the first act, she'll add some Bill Monroe, some Hank Williams -- pay tribute to some of the artists who inspired her. And in the second act, she'll do divas from the 1940s and '50s: Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page, Doris Day. And she'll sing Cline's Crazy.

"I kind of have to," Harding says. "Even when I'm me, people expect me to play Patsy."

Harding got her first guitar when she was 14. It was 1963, the year Patsy Cline died.

She's been writing songs most of her life. But she didn't try them out on audiences until about 10 years ago, when she moved to Tampa. She played her folky acoustic tunes in Ybor City coffeehouses and at open-mike nights.

Then she fronted a band. She got a regular gig on a cruise line, mostly doing other people's songs. At every show, someone would ask her to sing something Patsy.

Eventually she realized: They don't want me. They want Patsy.

So she bought a brown wig and white cowboy boots. Sewed herself some sequined skirts and vests. Perfected the twang, the voice, even the hip sway of the great country crooner. Soon, she was packing places from Pompano to the Panhandle.

She knows almost everything about Patsy's performances. She's read books, watched videos.

She's not sure how to be herself, though.

What should C.J. Harding wear onstage, she keeps asking herself. How should she wear her hair? Which of her songs should she sing? And will the audience like them? Will they like her?

"I really want to know what people think of me as me," she says. "Will they still love me without the wig? Will I feel naked without all Patsy's makeup, without her cowboy boots and glittery gowns? Without all Patsy's hee-haw personality, without her twang and her voice and her songs, will they still want me as me?"


'Always, C.J. Harding", featuring original songs by C.J. Harding plus music from the great singers of the '40s and '50s, 7 p.m. Wednesday and April 3, Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive, Largo. $15. (727) 587-6793. Also 2 p.m. April 16 and 7 p.m. April 17, Catherine A. Hickman Theater, Gulfport. (727) 422-7750. $15.

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