Had she not perished forty years ago in a plane crash, legendary country singer Patsy Cline would have been 71 this week. At the time of her untimely death, she was only 30, on the brink of huge stardom, after being named America's number one female artist in 1961 and 1962. Her plaintive voice, backed by producer Owen Bradley's often sepia-toned arrangements, helped country music cross over into the pop realm as well as help to redefine the role of females in the genre. Her legacy lives on, however, informing a legion of pop and alternative country songbirds, ranging from k.d. lang to Norah Jones.
Both aforementioned artists, among others, appear on the engaging yet uneven Remembering Patsy Cline. It's no surprise that lang nails it, having already paid her respects to Cline on her own recordings, especially with her 1988 breakthrough, Shawdowland on which she collaborated with Bradley. Lang approaches "Leavin' on Your Mind " with the same heartfelt, understated inventiveness as she did then, transforming the song's rhythmic pulse from a slow-drag shuffle to a meditative jazz ballad, replete with silhouette string and brass accompaniment and simpatico piano. And she croons the heartbreaking lyrics with just the right amount of yearning despair and dim optimism, without emotive mayhem.
Jones retains the roadhouse jukebox feel of "Why Can't He Be You " but does away with the spectral strings of the original, giving it a more immediate, raw feel. Still, Jones' singing and arrangement are gracefully unfussy as she renders the song's ironic theme of romantic frustration.
Like many other ambitious tribute projects, Remembering Patsy Cline defeats itself with interchangeable performances, overwhelming arrangements, and mismatched pairings. For all of vintage country music's affinity with southern R&B, especially in its balladry brilliance, Natalie Cole sounds dreadfully out of place on her retooling of Cline's No. 1 hit, "I Fall to Pieces. " Cole sounds remarkably listless, coached, and, bored with the material -- very similar to when she tries to sing jazz. But her cabaret act isn't what truly sinks her performance -- it's the syrupy strings, drab smooth jazz guitar riffs, and icky digital piano accompaniment.
And whoever came up with the idea of having Take 6 sing back up for Martina McBride should be shot. While both McBride's rustic singing and Take 6's street corner harmonies are things of beauty, they don't make for a lovely pairing on "Sweet Dreams (Of You). " Take 6 doesn't take the gentle, caressing approach as the Jordanaires did on the original. Instead, their rich, doo-wop harmonies nearly drown out McBride's yearning soprano, resulting in a performance that recalls one of those shotgun American Idol duets.
Rebecca Lynn Howard's "You're Stronger than Me " is weighed down by so much flossy studio production -- quirky digital beats, synth washes, and grating electric guitar solo -- that she and the song's lyrics get lost in the haze. Elsewhere are simply forgettable readings. Amy Grant's karaoke take on "Back in Baby's Arms " and Diana Krall's self-conscious reading of "Crazy " are so politely stiff in their interpretation that greatness of those songs never comes through.
Remembering Patsy Cline does have a few more shining moments than simply lang and Jones' performances. In fact, Lee Ann Womack's blues-drenched take of "She's Got You " bests both as she gives the song a healthy sense of vengeance that the original's rather sentimental version lacked, especially when Womack belts out "I got your memories/Or has it got me?/I really don't know/But I know it was love, baby. " Similarly, Terri Clark imbues the sassy "Walking After Midnight " with a new sense of "girl kick ass " attitude that would have undoubtedly made Cline proud.