55 Years Later, Camden, Tennessee Remembers Fallen Musical Heroes
Tuesday, March 5, 1963. It was an evening that folks in Camden, Tennessee will never forget. Just a couple of weeks before spring would take over the Magic Valley that touched upon the Tennessee River, the community would be thrust into the Country Music spotlight – for reasons that nobody wanted.
Roughly a hundred miles to the northwest of the county seat of Benton County in Dyersburg, Tennessee, four people sat a tiny café at the regional airport waiting for the inclement weather to clear up. The pilot, Randy Hughes, makes a telephone call to his wife in Nashville. Expecting to travel behind the storm, Hughes alerts his passengers that they would soon be leaving. The plane – a Piper Comanche – leaves the runway at 6:07pm. Less than an hour later, the plane would encounter massive turbulence when nearing Camden. Hughes tried to maintain the aircraft, but the storm would prove to be too violet, and the plane would soon tumble into the West Tennessee night, killing Hughes and his passengers instantly.
Of course, most Country Music fans know that those aboard the plane were Cowboy Copas – one of the most revered members of the Grand Ole Opry, an artist who had just made a huge comeback three years prior with the hit single “Alabam” – Hawkshaw Hawkins, a veteran performer who had just released what would prove to be his first number one hit, “Lonesome 7-7203” – and Patsy Cline, a young female artist who had just began to take over as the Top Female Vocalist in many of the major trade organizations. The tragic circumstances of that late winter day have forever put Camden, Tennessee in the music history books. Over the years, the posthumous interest in the music of Cline – heightened by the films Coal Miner’s Daughter (of which Cline was a supporting character) and Sweet Dreams (named after one of the final songs that she would record during her lifetime) has grown, and fans from across the globe have flocked to the town of 3,582 to pay their respects.
For years, there was nothing to see. The wooded area to the north of the city remained exactly the way that it was that night in 1963 for over thirty years. However, in the late 1990s, a movement slowly began to pay tribute to those four artists that were lost. In 1997, the city erected a rock-monument on the site of the crash. A trail was also erected where people could walk down to the site, yet it was still difficult to reach for many of the fans, as the hill was of a very steep descent.
Flash forward to 2018, and fifty-five years later, the city of Camden has paid honor to Cline, Copas, Hawkins, and Hughes with a winding memorial walkway to the crash site, along with a beautiful wooden gazebo overlooking the hill. The property – now properly maintained – serves as a fitting tribute to the Grand Ole Opry stars who met their destiny in the wooden forest. On a cold and rainy day on Mt. Carmel Road, a group of Benton Countians and media members gathered to unveil the new walkway – which those in attendance will find to be a proper remembrance. That’s how Jenna Cole-Wilson, Executive Director of the Benton County – Camden Chamber of Commerce sees it.
“About a year and a half ago, I had a $50,000 grant come across my desk. It was a tourism enhancement grant – a brick and mortar grant that we could build something with – I thought of this site. It’s so deserving. We had been searching for ways to improve it, and I knew that when it came across, I knew we should do something here. I took it to Mayor Barry Barnett, who agreed, and then we took it to the Benton County Commission. We wrote the grant, applied for it, and received it. We came out here, put it up for bid, and a local company – Jackson Landscaping and Builders – won the bid. They came out here and did some massive landscaping around the site to make it a lot more eye-appeasing. They have done the entry way, which was previously railroad ties. They tore those out, and they did a lot of stone work. They put in a kiosk down by the gazebo, which is interactive. You push it, and tells the history of that night, and the journey from Kansas City – where they were flying back from – to Dyersburg, to the tragedy that happened here.”
She went on to say that the worldwide interest in the events of March 5, 1963 still amazes her. “Whenever we come out here, there are always people out here, and they come from not just all over the United States, but all over the world. The plane crash that took place here is especially unique to Camden and to Benton County. While the events that happened on that fateful night are nothing short of tragic, we as a community have a responsibility to maintain this site, and to make it an appropriate memorial, and to pay respects to Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, Randy Hughes – and their family, friends, and fans. Today, we re-dedicate this site in memory of those whose lives were lost.”
For more information about the Memorial, contact the Benton County-Camden Chamber of Commerce at 731-584-8395.