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By LANE DeGREGORY
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001
PASS-A-GRILLE -- She comes out strutting, tipping her white cowboy hat to the men, waving and smiling at the women. Long fringe on her shoulders swings with each step. Rhinestones on her skirt sparkle in the spotlight.
"Howdy, everybody! How y'all doin' tonight?" she calls, squinting into the darkness at the Pass-a-Grille Yacht Club. "Well, y'all lookin' good. Lookin' real good. Well, there's Miss Sally. How ya doin, Miss Sally?"
Sally waves from the bar, where a dozen people are drinking highballs from plastic cups. At least 150 others are lounging around low tables, crunching corn chips, laughing in whispers.
The star sashays through the crowd. When she hits the stage, she starts clapping in time, stomping her right boot.
Another woman's name is stitched up its side. Big blue letters spell P-A-T-S-Y.
That's who these folks came to see.
The show sold out weeks ago. It does almost everywhere. On cruise ships, at fairs, in 6,000-seat theaters; in Vegas, in Minneapolis and all over Florida; from the Perry Elks Lodge to the Pompano Civic Center, at the Gulfport Casino and the Largo Community Center.
Patsy Cline has been dead since 1963.
But she can still pack a place.
So for the last six years, C.J. Harding has been pretending she's Patsy -- and making a comfortable living.
Who says it pays to be yourself?
* * *
When she moved to Tampa 10 years ago, Harding wanted a new start.
She tried to sing her own songs in Ybor City, wear her own bright sundresses, let down her long blond hair.
But she wasn't making it -- until people started requesting Patsy songs.
Not exactly her dream.
But there's this cosmic connection; weird things have happened. People get confused. One man died.
"It's strange," Harding says. "Sometimes I'm not sure who's using who."
On this Monday in mid-March, she's got the yacht clubbers clapping. Tapping their Top-siders and gold sequined pumps. Singing along and dancing in the aisles.
Harding is only halfway through her first set and she has already done Walkin' After Midnight and I Fall to Pieces and Your Cheatin' Heart.
"Now, y'all with me here tonight? Y'all havin' a good time? 'Cause I sure am," she says in a twang she picked up from a Patsy video.
"Now, anybody out here from Texas? Now, I love that town San Antonio. I'm gonna sing about it for you here."
In a rich, velvety voice, she croons The Rose of San Antone. Her tone is more mature than Patsy's. Just as warm and huge and wonderful.
"Doesn't she look just like her?" asks a woman in a blue blazer.
Harding doesn't see the resemblance.
Sure, she does everything she can to look the part: designs and sews her own costumes, wears a vintage watch and earrings, adds an antique wedding band. Tucks her hair into a wavy brunette wig. Even puts on makeup -- which she seldom wears off-stage.
But her lips are less full, her eyes blue instead of brown. She's 52. Patsy was 30 when she died.
No one seems to notice. Harding has the Patsy persona down pat.
"Now, I need a little help from the ladies on this one. I need one of y'all to volunteer your husband for me here," she says, waltzing around the room.
A 60-something woman in a black suit heaves her husband out of his bucket seat. Harding grabs the man's hands and slowly starts to dance.
She doesn't need another accident.
* * *
Harding's life is a country song.
She grew up in Savannah, Ga., on the wrong side of the tracks, as she tells it. Only child of a piano-playing mama and a daddy who dropped out of high school. Taught herself to play guitar when she was 14.
In her senior year, she was crowned Junior Miss Savannah. Got roses and a silver tiara and her picture in the paper. She became pregnant during her reign.
Her folks kicked her out, so she floated around through the '60s, drifting between Mexico, Hawaii and, of course, California, carrying her guitar, her backpack and her little flower child, Chris; riding buses, hitchhiking, camping along the railroad tracks.
She finally settled in Washington state, on a commune she helped build in the woods. She raised two sons and a daughter there, home-schooled them and farmed and did everything organic. She played her tunes -- plus some Janis Joplin and Joan Baez.
When she can, she still sings her idols' songs.
But they don't draw like Patsy. Few do.
Until Shania Twain came along, Patsy Cline was the top-selling female country artist of all time. Her greatest hits album sold 6-million copies. Her box set has sold a half-million.
She was the first woman to cross over from country to pop, the top female artist of 1961 and 1962. She played Carnegie Hall with the Grand Ole Opry. She died in a plane crash on her way home from a benefit concert.
Ten years later, she became the first woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"There's just something about Patsy, something in the tone of her voice, her attitude. People adore her," Harding says. "She's the female Elvis."
Sometimes, Harding says, she feels like a female Elvis impersonator.
Sometimes she feels like Patsy.
Sometimes she longs to be herself.
* * *
Harding twirls the man around the dance floor, singing Shake Rattle and Roll, then walks him back to his chair. "Let's give Frank a big hand!," she says, leading the applause. "Thank you, Frank."
Frank nods. He's still wheezing. His wife smiles and thwacks his back.
Once, during one of Harding's cruise-ship shows, a retired man was dancing with five nurses. She smiled as they waltzed around through two slow songs. Then she picked up the pace.
The man and the nurses started spinning faster and faster. He seemed to be having so much fun. Then he just keeled over. Heart attack. Died dancing.
They kept him on ice all the way back from Cozumel.
Much of her two-hour tribute is improvisational: She plays to the audience, tries to do what Patsy might have done.
And she pours out her heart and soul.
"Sometimes I feel like Patsy's got her hand resting on my shoulder," Harding said before the show. "We're connected somehow. I've seen all these signs."
Patsy and Harding's mother looked alike. They were born the same year. Harding bought her first guitar the year Patsy died.
Harding visited Patsy's hometown of Winchester, Va., and was invited to sing at the millennium New Year's Eve celebration. She met Patsy's mom and her daughter. During Sweet Dreams, the audience wept.
Just before Patsy died, she felt omens of doom. Harding feels bad karma.
Last year, on March 5, Harding was flying over Kansas City on her way home from a gig. The plane started pitching. Outside the windows, everything went black. The captain ordered everyone to fasten their seatbelts, stay calm. Harding started praying, "Dear Lord, just because I do this Patsy thing, please don't take me down like her."
Patsy died near Kansas City on March 5, 1963.
The inscription on her grave reads, "Death cannot kill what never dies."
Harding opens her arms and walks to the edge of the stage. Hoss rolls the soundtrack, turns up the volume. The crowd quiets.
"Now, here's a little song that's true to life. True to mine at least," she says. "I've loved and lost again . . ."
* * *
By the time Harding found Florida, she had been married four times, lived in Vancouver and made costumes for the Canadian film industry. Her children were grown and her mother had died. She came to take care of her father -- and to find a new life.
She started singing at open-mike nights in Ybor City, soon fronted a band, then got booked on Regency Rainbow Cruiselines. She mostly was doing covers, sometimes throwing in a few originals. During every show, someone would ask her to sing something Patsy.
"I'd listened to her records growing up. So I knew her stuff," Harding says. "Everyone always told me I sounded like her, so I started putting more of her songs into the shows."
Finally, she suggested an all-Patsy show, and learned a dozen of the songs. Band members grumbled, but played along.
"We were bringing maybe 300 people a night into the cruiseship ballroom," she says. "But when they said it was a Patsy Cline show, we got 1,200 people the first night and every night after."
They didn't want to see C.J. Harding. They wanted someone to play Patsy.
Some say she sold out.
"Yeah," she says. "All 6,000 seats in Pompano."
Plus she sang with the Grand Ole Opry, opened for Ray Stevens and John Michael-Montgomery. She has logged 10,000 miles of touring over the past two years. She has sold more than 2,000 CDs of herself singing Patsy songs.
"I gave away 100 CDs of my originals. Dropped some off in Nashville, too. Nothing," Harding says.
Of course, she would love her own recording contract some day. She would love to play even Ruth Eckerd Hall as herself. She plans to put some originals on the Internet at least.
She's taking it slow, making trade-offs -- inviting her Patsy audiences to come see her original shows.
She played for free a couple weeks ago, at a gulf-front grill in Pass-a-Grille, welcoming the sunset with some of her own folk-rock tunes and singing with her friend, Mindy Simmons. Her songs are well crafted and lyrical, ranging from funny to profound, about endangered elephants and her first love, Elvis, about wanting to meet sexy men.
Near the end of Harding's concert of originals, a woman on a picnic bench raised her hand.
"Excuse me," she asked. "Would you please play Crazy?"
Sometimes, even when she finally gets a chance to be herself, they want Patsy instead. Sometimes, that's sad. Mostly, it's okay.
Harding says she's grateful to have found this niche. "I was playing to drunks in smoky bars for $100 a night. Now, I'm bringing home 20 times that -- and the audiences adore it. I'm still doing covers. But now I'm doing them from concert stages.
"I love doing Patsy because I feel like everybody loves her. Maybe that's a fear of mine: that, being C.J., maybe they'll disapprove.
"Being Patsy is safe.
"And even if no one ever knows who C.J. Harding is, at least I've been successful as someone else."
* * *
For the second act, Harding changes into a black and white beaded dress with a sheer black drape, more sophisticated -- later Patsy.
She doesn't say a word this time, as she strolls through the spotlight. Clutches her hand-held mike and closes her eyes. Her red lips open and her honey alto fills the room:
Only one word, and the crowd starts murmuring to each other, some clap. A woman in a pink cardigan reaches over to hold her husband's hand. He looks into her eyes.
The songs bring back memories for so many people. Maybe it isn't even really Patsy they want. It's just someone to sing those songs.
Harding plays volunteer concerts sometimes in the dining hall at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines. Tears roll down the men's faces when she does Faded Love. They tell her about their young sweethearts, nurses they met, their dead wives.
She gives them back pieces of their past -- and a few moments of pleasure in the present. Even Patsy herself can't do that, can't hold their hands or look into their eyes or invite them onstage to do The Tennessee Waltz. Harding draws them all in.
"Now, I tell y'all, you're a fun bunch of people," she says toward the end of the yacht club show, winding around the round tables. "Bet you didn't know you had a little bit of country in you right here in Pass-a-Grille. Now, I'm gonna sing one more song ...
"But first, I need to thank Hoss back here. This is Mr. Bob Longfellow," she says, bowing to a grinning man in a black cowboy hat. "Y'all give him a big hand. He's making it happen here. Always does."
Longfellow heard Harding singing at the state fair. He has one lung and one kidney. He's a retired sergeant major from the Army. He told Harding he really enjoyed her voice, asked her if she needed any help. Soon, he was hauling speakers, setting up her shows, working the soundboard. He won't let her pay him. Says he just loves the music.
Harding and Hoss aren't romantically involved. Her new love is Dave, who didn't even know who Patsy Cline was. The first time he saw Harding's show, he couldn't believe it.
"I sang a song right to him," she says. "He just kept blinking at me."
Her last song tonight is Always. Two couples can't help it, they get up and start slow dancing along the edge of the stage. Everyone else starts clapping long before the song ends. They stand up while she's still singing. "Encore," they all shout.
She laughs and waves and sings one more, Crazy ...
After the show, she sells a half-dozen photos of herself, dressed as Patsy, of course, and 16 discs of her singing Patsy. Two women are waiting for autographs.
"When you were up there just now, were you trying to act like Patsy or were you being you?" one asks. Harding stops for a second and considers the question. Then she smiles and says in her own voice:
"If I took off my wig and brought out my guitar and sang my own songs, I promise you we'd still have ourselves a good ol' time."
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