ON 5 MARCH 1963, the country singer Patsy Cline boarded a light aeroplane to take her from Nashville to Kansas City. She never arrived. The aircraft crashed into a wood shortly after take-off, leaving a crater so huge it scars the Tennessee landscape to this day. Patsy, along with three other country stars, was killed on impact.

'I tell you Patsy Cline is not dead,' said Charlie Dick, her widower and the executor of her estate, who was in Britain last week. 'She is bigger today than ever before across the world. I was on a show in Ireland the other day with a 15-year-old Patsy sing- alike. In Belfast I was in a cab and the radio was playing one of her songs. Wherever I go, I hear Patsy.'

Charlie Dick is right. The Patsy Cline business is alive, well, and very big indeed. In 1992 more than a million of her records were sold in Britain alone. This week a new video, Remembering Patsy ( pounds 10.99), and a boxed set of four compact discs, The Definitive Patsy Cline ( pounds 39.99) are released; last month a biography, Honky Tonk Angel, was published; and recently, at a night-club in south London, 900 lesbians gathered to dance and sway to her music. Dressed in stetsons and quiffs, cowgirl boots and rhinestone-encrusted jackets, they sang along, word-perfect, to 'Walkin' After Midnight', 'Crazy' and 'I Fall to Pieces', Patsy's greatest hits.

'Patsy presents a strong image of a woman,' explained Caz Gorham, who organised this women-only country evening. 'I think she was the first female country and western singer to wear trousers on stage.'

Like Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, death has not curtailed Patsy Cline's earning power. Thirty years after the fatal crash, Charlie Dick is a rich man. And much of the money enabling the 60-year-old Charlie to re-enamel his teeth and re- thatch his scalp comes from the pockets of Britain's lesbians.

'Patsy popular among gays? Is that right?' smiled Charlie. 'Well, you don't say.'

Charlie's smile has not always been so broad. Unlike Holly and Hendrix, his wife's sales potential was dormant for more than 20 years. Through the Sixties and Seventies, he was receiving the royalties from little more than a handful of record sales across the world. Things began to change in the mid-Eighties when two films - The Coal Miner's Daughter and Sweet Dreams - glamorised the struggle that was much of her life.

In these movies Patsy was revealed as a woman who was forced to fight for her craft. She fought agents who exploited her, she fought the misogynistic Nashville establishment and, most of all, she fought her husband, Charlie Dick. In Sweet Dreams, Charlie is portrayed as a drunken bum who, jealous of the attention his wife gave to her career at his expense, tried to prevent her from pursuing it, often with his fists. So traumatised was she, the film suggests, that she spent many of her recording sessions and stage performances in tears.

According to Ellis Nassour, author of Honky Tonk Angel, the image presented in Sweet Dreams was significantly Hollywood-ised. 'It is a good movie,' said Mr Nassour, 'if you know nothing about Patsy Cline.'

But nevertheless his meticulously researched book suggests that Charlie spent much of the early days of his marriage trying to persuade Patsy to stay at home, to be a proper wife, not to pursue music.

'I never say directly in the book Charlie beat up on her,' Mr Nassour explained. 'I quoted folk saying that Patsy came to a television show with a black eye and stories about how Charlie had gotten drunk and Patsy had had him arrested. Then someone else would say: 'No, no that's not true,' and I put that in too. I tried to present everyone's view. Though I have to say you never meet anybody in Nashville who knows Charlie who has anything real nice to say about him. There is no doubt, however, that they loved each other.'

Charlie Dick, obviously, does not subscribe to the representation of his marriage given by the film or the book.

'Movie? Book? What book?' he said. 'I don't call that a book. I call it a lot of things, none of them printable. I came up with the idea of doing a video about Patsy to clarify so much of what was in the book and the movie. You see, she was just an ordinary girl. She loved home life, you know, cookin', cleanin', lookin' after her family. I didn't make her.

'Sure we argued, we were fightin' all the time, we had a passionate relationship. But we didn't do knock- down, drag-out fightin'. Not once.

'I was worried about my children seeing that nonsense in the movie. To be honest I was also worried I might get attacked by a fan, who blamed me for something or other.'

But what about the tears, the legendary way in which Patsy would break down almost every time in the studio while recording her songs?

'I was always gettin' into trouble for that,' said Charlie. 'I'd show up at the studio and Patsy's producer would collar me outside and say, 'What the hell you been doin' to Patsy? Why are you guys always fightin'?' And I'd say we hadn't been, and he'd say: 'But she's cryin' so much through every song.' It was just the music. She loved her music.'

According to Andy Medhurst of Sussex University, who has written extensively about gay icons, an essential part of Patsy's romantic appeal to homosexuals is this image of someone who overcame abuse by a brutish, uncaring husband who tried his best to stifle her career. 'It adds to the tone of disappointment and despair in her songs,' he said. 'She is the nearest thing to a diva country music has.'

For a gay favourite, Patsy has all the requisite elements: tragic early death, a portfolio of dark and poignant songs and an allegedly miserable personal life.

'Her music has a sense of unrequited passion, you know, heartache, which is meaningful to those who are unable, because of outside pressures, to express feelings openly,' says Caz Gorham. 'But there is also a tongue- in-cheek element. Those clothes, that style. I don't think you can buy into it without a sense of irony.'

'She has a very big, very unabashed voice,' says Mandy Merck, who produced a BBC film, Gay Rodeo, about homosexual affection for things country. 'It's feminine without being at all hesitant or little-girlish. And she looked big. She was a forcefully featured woman.'

All this is delightful news for Charlie Dick's bank manager. Moreover Charlie has, in k d lang, the Canadian country singer, the best unpaid promotions executive he could wish for. Already developing a fanatical lesbian following, k d came out of the closet in the late Eighties and pronounced herself a Patsy Cline fan. She named her band the re-Clines, she hired Owen Bradley, Patsy's old producer, she claimed she took musical advice from Patsy in spiritual chitchats.

'k d has done a lot to make Patsy real popular again,' Charlie said. 'I have to say I am most grateful to k d'

And though he may have hated it at the beginning, these days Charlie is very grateful indeed that his wife pursued her career. Not content with receiving royalties from her record sales, he has set about marketing her image with vigour.

'I own the pictures of Patsy,' he said. 'I didn't have control for years, but now there are stronger rules on bootleggers in the US. I heard that a store in Nashville was selling unauthorised Patsy Cline T-shirts, so I just went on down there and took them out physically. We never compromise on merchandising. I tell you Patsy keeps me real busy. She has become very time-consuming.'

Of all the oddities about the new craze for a woman who died 30 years ago, about the way in which someone who, according to Ellis Nassour 'was completely, 100 per cent heterosexual' has become a gay goddess, the biggest is Charlie Dick. The villain of the piece for many of Patsy's new fans, the man who is said to have spent much of his time with her objecting to her career, is now making a more-than-decent pension out of the very thing he is accused of trying to kill off.

'A lot of people fault Charlie for doing that,' said Ellis Nassour. 'As a result of Patsy's music he has become a very wealthy man. But the children have benefited from this, her mother has benefited from this. They are set up for life. In the end, she has looked after her family in the way he always wanted.

'I think, whatever her new fans might say, Patsy would have wanted that.'

(Photograph omitted)