Weeks before Patsi Cox left her mortal coil, she got busted. Riding shotgun down from Kentucky with a guy running moonshine; the feds in an unmarked pulled the pair over. BANG! Put the bracelets on. Took her in. Couldn’t make the charges stick, but what an outlaw move!
Right before she checked out, she goes flying on the wrong side of the law, laughing and telling stories, feeling more alive than most of us would ever dare. Sixty-some odd years old, and there she goes: 70 miles an hour through the dark, cargo of illegal hootch in the trunk.
Can’t think of a better move. Patsi, after all, filled out the definition of a broad with a ribald sense of humor, a fearless sense of right and wrong, humanity on the half shell and the willingness to speak out about the things that mattered to her.
Busted. Then she left the building. Smoking right up til the end… from emphysema… dying on the same terms she lived: exactly as she wanted. And if she knew it was going to get her in the end, hell, Patsi figured better that than being safe or boring.
Patsi’d always lived like that.
A bona fide hippie feminist, she came out of Denver when it was really wild – founder of a legit woman-concsious magazine in a place where that sorta thing seemed to matter. And when it became a raging success, and the big boys came a-callin’ to put her on their boards or big retainers – hoping to annex some validation from the homegrown Gloria Steinem – Patsy wasn’t buying in. She saw the game, and she moved on.
Moved on – and ended up in Nashville. Before it was sanitized of characters, people with opinions and notions and a sense of what great was. She fell in with a creative crowd, fringing with Johnny Cash cohort/songwriter/producer Cowboy Jack Clement, casting her fate with iconoclastic music biz vet Steve Popovich and producer Allen Reynolds
With that broad laugh deepened by the cigarettes, she could regale you with stories, tell you about the over/under on just about any breaking news story, point out hypocrisy without blinking. She had an eye for injustice – and she’d let you know
She had an eye for good work. She’d let you know about that, too.
When Patty Loveless came over to Epic Records from powerhouse MCA, she had a blood vessel threaten to burst on her vocal chord and still turned in a stunning album. I went after the press with a vengeance.
And it all came in. Only What I Feel was just that good. Patty Loveless, the hard country girl from a God’s honest holler in Eastern Kentucky, a true hillbilly soul singer, was getting her’s.
Having known Patty since she was a singles artist, I remembered her buying vintage clothes and practically living out of the trunk of her little Toyota; I was merely a college kid, writing for all kinds of amazing places, but still mostly a kid. I took her shot personally. I hounded and reaffirmed, cajoled and reminded; she won.
When an ex-husband ran to the tabs with some very unflattering stuff, we fought it back. Addressed it once, waited for the pain to die down. What was sure career destruction was short-circuited.
Late one business day, the phone rang. It was Patsi, whose firm had represented Patty before she’d changed labels – before she'd some in-house, because honestly, I wanted to know everything was being doggedly pursued.
“I”ve been watching,” she said husky voice, all fire and corn whiskey.
My stomach tightened. As a young critic, plenty of people had thrown down the “why HER?” card, daggers at my feet and sniping at my back.
Patsi took things personally, too. Don’t show fear, I thought. Breathe. Just breathe. You can take whatever she’s gonna tell you.
“And…” I hoped I didn’t chirp.
“You’re doing a ^&%ing great job,” then she laughed. “Seriously. She’s finally getting what she deserves… and it’s been great to watch.”
We talked for another half hour. About Patty, where she came from, the secret marriage to her producer – for fear of it overshadowing the music, the songs she chose that gutted you like a fish.
The sun had fallen from the early summer sky. Surely, Patsi had a life to get back to. After all, who calls to say “Good job”? Especially when they don’t have skin in the game.
“You keep doing what you’re doing,” the journalist/publicist/force of nature said. “Before too long, she’s gonna be winning Female Vocalist of the Year.”
Just like Patsi to remember: the little girl, who’d grown up sitting on the kitchen table on Saturday night while her mother washed the floors as they both listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a radio propped in an open window, always dreamed of “the big award.”
When as a kid, her brother brought her down to Nashville to see about those songs she was writing, she was taken under the wing of Porter Wagoner and his emerging equal Dolly Parton. She went to the Ryman as their guest the night they won their first CMA Duo of the Year Award – and she was dazzled by the way Dolly turned real life into songs, songs that mirrored Loveless’ emerging emotions.
“Yeah, Pats,” I concurred. “From your lips to God’s ears…”
“You’ll see,” she soothed. Then she was gone.
That was the woman with the headful of shaggy faded ebony curls, huarache sandals and some kind of boxy clothing on. She always knew when to weigh in. She made her point. Then she was gone.
She was the wingman for Cathy Gurley, who at one point ran the Country Music Association’s press department. Then went on her own. Then was lured to Capitol by the legendary music man Jimmy Bowen, just as the ascent of Garth Brooks was beginning.
Cox had been around Mercury when Steve Popovich had signed a politically (radio)active Kris Kristofferson, a theoretically past-his-shelf-life Johnny Cash, a West Virginia folkie with a voice like expensive silk named Kathy Mattea and yes, polka king Frank Yankovic – and she got them all.
Yankovic, proof that a bull-headed Pollock from Cleveland can never ever get above their raising, made Patsi happy. She got it, and never worried that he wasn’t “country,” because to Pops Poland was a country.
Gurley, like Patsi Cox, loved songwriters. She took me to the Bluebird on my first trip of Nashville in 1983… to see an “in the round,” with Tom Schuyler, who wrote the songwriters anthem “16th Avenue,” Paul Overstreet, responsible for Randy Travis’ “Deeper Than The Holler” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” and Fred Knobloch, who’d paired with sadly departed folk icon Steve Goodman for the stunning tortured torch of “A Lover Is Forever.”
Cathy Gurley sat me down, waited for it to happen. Boy, did it. The power of songs from the source is a blast from a high pressure hose, only it comes at the listener soft and warm and earnest. It was a watershed…
It was also exactly what Patsi Cox traded in. Exactly that mainlining life that made her feel most alive.
Not that a woman like Patsi Cox would ever be fulfilled apologizing and ratcheting up the fame mill. Eventually she drifted back to writing. Authoring Tanya Tucker’s autobiography in a deal brokered for big dollars by a New York agent who didn’t care about whatever humanity the wild child singer might still have.
It was a devil’s deal. What Tucker wouldn’t commit to telling, what the publisher believed they'd bought.
One of the good ones, Patsi understood how a woman who had a couple kids – regardless of how much cocaine she’d ingested, how many cowboys she’d poked, how tempestuous her bust up with Glen Campbell was or how superfreaky her dalliance with Rick James might have been – would not wanna wallow in the squalor.
She stood on my stoop one night, sucking on a cigarette, ruing what people value.
“They only want the dirtiest stuff, and I’m not gonna give it to them,” she announced proudly. “T. doesn’t wanna. The publishers are telling me to push her – and there’s just a point where it doesn’t matter. I’m at that point.”
Ahhh, Patsi, who would never prey on a famous person’s vulnerability. No, she was the kind who would bow up and stand strong for her collaborators.
Pat Benatar fell in love with her when Patsi co-authored her memoir.
Toni Braxton took and took her time and money to where she almost bankrupted the feisty woman who hated what had happened to Braxton, who had faced down a bankruptcy over predatory show biz deals.
Thankfully, an angel appeared from almost nowhere. We were on the phone one night, talking about the politics of Music Row – the peril of knowing the difference, the things that were really at stake.
She got quiet. “If it wasn’t for…(name of angel, she probably wouldn’t want revealed)… I’d’ve been in the streets And they told me to just pay them back when I could, and I almost have.”
She was quiet one more moment, out of gratitude and grace. Then she laughed that rolling tumbleweed laugh, and did a Patsi.
“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled.
Oh, Patsi. Patsi, Patsi, Patsi.
Damn you! The truth so succinct, so true – and, well, so thrilling.
Over the last few years, things for me have been a bit off-kilter. Things you thought you could count on, people you were sure you could believe in… Well, they’re not always that.
Patsi understood. We’d talk about it. She never pressed for details, just asked “How ya doing?”
The conversation veering from faith to raw stupidity.
“How do you believe when there’s no reason to? What a sucker,” I lamented one afternoon.
“Nah, you’re never wrong to believe, Holly,” she consoled. “You know, if you don’t believe, I don’t think you’d be one damn bit good. It’s who you are, it’s what you do… and if somebody betrayed that, well, that tells you everything about them, doesn’t it? And now you know, and you don’t ever have to look back.”
Patsi did, though. She looked back without turning to a pillar salt like Lot’s wife. Looked back to make order out of random patterns no one saw; looked back and considered what it all meant.
Her book The Garth Factor examined the impact of the arena-sized country superstar from Oklahoma, not just on the country music business, but the world. She looked at how it happened, what it wrought.
She did it with clarity, and she did it with faith.
“Keep the faith,” she’d remind me when I’d be laid low. “Keep the faith. It’s what you do… Well, that and write like nobody I know.”
We would IM about politics, about hinky stuff happening down on Music Row. She’d pull no punches, call a spade a spade. We were both relieved someone else saw what we did…
There was nothing like seeing her pop up as an IM. Like electricity, you knew the exchange would be fast, furious, provocative and send you away enlivened and emboldened.
When Steve Popovich died suddenly, we were all startled. He was the man who built Meatloaf out of raw will, sheer determination and the steel-hard get it done work ethic that is the Rust Belt smelt of Pennyslvania, Ohio, Detroit -- and he knew how to get things done, how to ferret out the passionistas from the poseurs.
He was mythic from my childhood, almost too daunting by the whispers I’d heard floating around my hometown to speak to. I found myself driving north to the funeral, sitting with a man he’d signed to Epic New York who he couldn’t break and Popovich ultimately would have to cut from the label.
Me and the singer had an odd talk about death after the service. “The good ones are dropping,” he said.
It shook me as bad as the service. I found myself writing one of these essays. Staying up all night, then flying to Nashville to drive to Savannah to interview Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, watch the show, pass out and drive back to Nashville to fly back to Cleveland – and finish that essay.
When I walked into the same chic restaurant I’d had dinner in all by myself two nights prior, they remembered me. The manager led me outside, watched me open my keyboard and asked if I was okay.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I gotta get this right.”
Patsi Cox was one of the first people to respond. “You got it” came the three word email. Phew!
Later online, she told me all kinds of stories about the close knit family that were interwoven with her own family. How Pop believed in her, and we both knew that was a pretty good endorsement.
She got guys like that. They got her, too. She was the kinda broad they liked. Tough, savvy, testicle-busting, but the first one to stand up to you, but especially for you.
Then just like Steve Popovich, Patsy was gone. In and out of the hospital, obviously. Oxygen pumped in, but the laughter and her intolerance for b.s. never pulled out.
Even so, few things were so vital as seeing “what are you doing?” or “did you see…” pop up on your screen. She was a live wire, a brilliant source of questioning and insight.She made you think; she made you care.
Funny thing, life doesn’t distinguish. Death hits us all.
And right now, as I’m wedged between two promotion veterans, winging my way to Vegas, there’s a memorial service going on at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
One more moment I miss, and yet, Patsy would’ve probably said, “Get out there! LIVE.”
Still, it's the things you miss. Being there. Tall tales that are anything but. Patsi Cox’s just about last ride was shotgun with a shine-runner. It’s the stuff legends and lies are made of, but you know Patsi Cox lived her life her way... never lying down or worrying about what might happen.
“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled. She would know.We should all hope to be so lucky.