Patsy inClined

Neko Case And Jenny Lewis Got Nothin’ On Patsy Montana

As of 2005, Patsy Cline’s 12 Greatest Hits sold 10 million copies. Not bad for a ghost. She got on a plane to Kansas City in 1963 — just a couple years into her newfound fame as the sweetheart of the Nashville rodeo — and never came back, disappearing into the ether of immortality like Amelia Earhart in spurs. Her ghost has been haunting American music ever since, and any vaguely countryish thrush will have to suffer comparisons. Just ask KD Lang. Still, Patsy Cline didn’t come from nothing. Her colorized visage has become iconic: inky black locks, ruby lips, ultra-brite smile lighting up a moonpie face, decked out in full-on cowgirl regalia like Bob Wills with boobs.

But that’s actually the spitting image of Patsy Montana, the artist formerly known as Rubeye Blevins, who struck out on her own after a stint in the Montana Cowgirls, and sold a million copies of her self-penned “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” in 1935.

Admittedly, as a singer, Montana’s got nothing on Cline, and as a songwriter, well, let’s just say she’s no Willie Nelson, but her yodelin’ yarn of barnyard romance was like opium to to the poor and huddled masses of the Depression, clustered around the wireless in tarpaper shacks. It certainly was to teenaged Virginia Patterson Hensley, jerking sodas at Gaunt’s Drugstore in one-horse Winchester Virginia, trying to escape the clutches of her lecherous father and dreaming of the promised land of country music stardom. Not for nothing would she later change her name to Patsy Cline.

All these years later, the twangy heartbreak dreamscapes of the singing cowgirl still enchant — after all, we’re still depressed, and still clustering around the wireless. And the torch-song has been passed to succeeding generations, from Loretta Lynn to Linda Ronstadt to Nora Jones. In alt-country circles, Patsy Cline casts a shadow of influence rivaled only by Billie Holiday. It is here, on the edges of that enduring moonlit cowgirl silhouette, that exceptional new releases by Neko Case and Jenny Lewis work their corn-fed magic. Heretofore, both were, in some quarters, better known for their involvement in other bands — Case blares the New Pornographers’ immaculate rhapsodies, Lewis’ voice is the pleasant breeze that flies Rilo Kiley’s indie-pop kite — but that will soon change.

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, is the fifth album from Case in nearly twice as many years, and it marks her emergence as a major player. Long praised for her leather-lungs, clarion tone — like God’s private car alarm, some have opined — and take-exactly-no-shit-from-anybody chutzpah, Case reveals herself to also be a cunning linguist. Some have taken issue with the album’s elliptical ambiguities and animal kingdom allegories, but I think they push her whole act into wholly original territory, an intriguing x-factor that sets off the relative familiarity of the settings: spare desert-blown Americana from the Calexico/Giant Sand savants, deep-bottom guitar twang from the Sadies, the Band’s Garth Hudson’s spectral organ and piano, and miles and miles of reverb. But it is Case’s voice that pulls this train through the tunnel, over and over again.

On Rabbit Fur Coat, Jenny Lewis’s crystalline timbre cuts through a fog of reverb like a searchlight. Backed by the bewitching Watson Twins, Lewis seems to be walking out of a scene from The Shining on the cover. Nobody gets axe murdered in the course of the album, except perhaps the future of Rilo Kiley. This becomes apparent on the rapturous cover of the Traveling Willburys’ “Handle Me With Care” where she is joined by nouveau Willburys Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard and M. Ward. Puts the “hoot” in hootenanny, it does.