Ten years ago, the family pulled into a rather famous drive-in on Route 16, halfway between our hometown of Olean,NY and Buffalo. Our children were pretty young at the time. They were disconcerted by a particular feature of the more or less “western” themed restaurant. The table legs were settled into cowboy boots. It kinda spooked the kids and I myself felt a little uneasy.
The place is gone now, the owner has passed away–gone to that blue plate special in the sky–so it’s all right to say that the food wasn’t quite the home cookin’ the road sign claimed. But a framed letter on the wall that was the decoration for our booth caught my attention.
It was a letter, circa 1962, a handwritten letter of thanks, sort of loopy and swirly, from Miss Patsy Cline to Mr. Jimmy Dale. Jimmy Dale was a disc jockey and country singer at radio station W-A-L-L in Middletown,NY. Patsy was thanking him very kindly for having her on his show as his “special guest.”
This letter resonated for three reasons. Jimmy Dale was originally from Olean. Had a C&W hit in the ‘40’s–I believe called “Cannonball.” That was #1.
We’d lived for a couple of years near Middletown. That was #2.
And #3, I was a huge fan of Miss Patsy Cline.
Only much later did I recollect the letter and have it serve a valuable, pivotal role in a novel I was working on.
The small town rock & roll band that is the subject of my novel Sidereal Days had to have some plausible occasion to emerge from the shadows of obscurity to begin their climb into the light. My band The Sparrows had great local success in Olean,NY. They parlayed that into playing small gigs in surrounding towns in an ever widening circumference. A local fan arranges a gig with his father, a club owner in Middletown,NY, 250 miles east of Olean. The Sparrows see this as a chance to play near the golden destination at the end of every New York State highway,New York City.
The band makes the most of every appearance they put in anywhere. They send a “press release” to local newspapers. They also try to get a radio interview wherever and whenever they can. They’re savvy enough to recognize that newspapers have lots of pages to fill and radio stations have many hours of time on the air. So the benefits are mutual for the band and the media.
As guests on Middletown’s W-A-L-L (see Jimmie Dale above) they hear for the first time (my guys are rock & rollers) “Crazy,” the mystic, bluesy country lament that ruled juke box play for two generations. As they gasp their admiration of the song to their host “JD the DJ,” unbeknownst to anyone but me, the Sparrows have stepped onto the milieu of the letter framed on the wall of our diner booth. Patsy Cline will be a guest host on W-A-L-L that night…it’s the night on the radio referenced in Patsy’s letter to Jimmy Dale.
The Sparrows meet Patsy Cline, share the midnight spont on the radio with her, and spend a Beaujolais evening afterward in her hotel room. Impressed with the boys and with a song they’ve written, she invites them to open for her a few months down the road, in Kansas City,Kansas at the War Memorial Auditorium. The significance of that show will be sadly familiar to any devoted fan of Patsy Cline.
But the Sparrows have managed the tricky, crucial climb from obscure local heroes to a band on the rise, catching the first glimmering rays of national success.