Originally created 07/11/97

Ramblin' Rhodes: TV show to salute pioneers



Cora Cline wasn't a singer and never made recordings, but at 49 she became one of country music's first female stars.

The Tennessee housewife received fan letters from throughout the United States and overseas as a result of her four years as a hammered dulcimer soloist on the fledgling Grand Ole Opry in the late 1920s.

She often is credited with helping to build the foundation and popularity for what developed into today's country music scene.

The Nashville Network pays tribute to Mrs. Cline and other female stars in The Women of Country, airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday on the cable television network. Performers include Kitty Wells, Minnie Pearl, June Carter Cash, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Wynonna Judd and Shania Twain.

Cora Cline, who died in 1973, never achieved the fame of those stars, but her memory is very much alive thanks to her descendants, including granddaughter Mary Lynn West, president of Barbara Mandrell's fan club.

"She lived to be 96," Mrs. West recalled. "During her later years, she still listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Roy Acuff wrote a letter to her around her 90th birthday inviting her to come back for a guest appearance on the Opry, but she never did.

"She had a big birthday party at age 92. I wrote a poem for her and read it to our gathering. People dropped in to the party all day long."

Mrs. Cline played the dulcimer most of her life, Mrs. West said.

"On Sundays, for many years, people would come to the Cline home with their guitars and other instruments to play with my grandmother," Mrs. West said. "She usually cooked for those who came over, which were as many as 20 to 40 people."

Mrs. Cline - born Kitty Cora Denning - grew up in the Fairfield community near Westmoreland, Tenn., northeast of Nashville. She married Grundy Cline, a timber man, and they raised nine children, including Mrs. West's mother, Mary Gladys Graves.

By 1925, Mrs. Cline had become widely known for her dulcimer playing.

Her fame reached "Judge" George Hay, a newspaperman who had started a hillbilly music program on WSM radio station in Nashville on Nov. 28, 1925. He subsequently nicknamed the program "the Grand Ole Opry" on Dec. 10, 1927, since it followed a network program of opera music.

Mrs. Cline learned, within a few days of its beginnings, that the new radio show was seeking more performers, so she auditioned.

"I went down there and played Chippie, Get Your Hair Cut," Mrs. Cline later told a reporter. Judge Hay liked what he heard and hired Mrs. Cline for $1 per air-time minute.

The dulcimer she played with small, wooden mallets on the live radio program the next four years was handmade of sugar maple by a man in Kentucky and had been purchased by her son, Corbit Lester "Red" Cline, for $4.50.

Mrs. Cline performed the first four or five times accompanied by a relative, Edgar Cline, on the fiddle. Judge Hay, however, asked the fiddler to drop out because he thought Mrs. Cline's music sounded good enough by itself.

She became a hit with those early Opry audiences with some of her best-known numbers, Sally Goodin', Airplane, Going Up Cripple Creek, When the Saints Go Marching In and Arkansas Traveler.

Since she didn't drive, neighbors took turns taking her to the Grand Ole Opry, charging her five gallons of gas and one quart of oil for each trip.

It didn't take long for her to realize the listening power of early radio.

"Judge Hay asked me one Saturday night (on the program) if I was married, and I told him no," Mrs. Cline said jokingly, even though her husband was sitting beside her on the stage. "Not long after that," she added, "I got a letter from a man overseas asking me to marry him."

Mrs. Cline's Opry career ended abruptly.

While being driven home from the program one night, she saw a bad auto wreck. She was so upset by the sight that she never returned to the Opry and rarely traveled outside her county in a car.

She spent her last years living on a farm near Portland, Tenn., with her daughter, Leola Denning, playing her dulcimer mainly for family and friends.

At 92, she was the grandmother of 42, great-grandmother of 69 and great-great grandmother of 12.

She died on March 10, 1973, and was buried at Fairfield Methodist Church, in the community she had loved most of her life.

The next time you hear someone praising Patsy Cline, just remember that there might never have been any female country stars without Cora Cline and musical trailblazers like her.

On TV
What: The Women of Country
Where: The Nashville Network
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Performers: Kitty Wells, Minnie Pearl, June Carter Cash, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Wynonna Judd, Shania Twain and others