When selecting tracks for her greatest hits album, Kiwi country music legend Patsy Riggir realised how much she had overcome to get to that point.
During her darkest days, depression left the Beautiful Lady singer incapable of going far from her home in Putaruru, South Waikato, and unable to do the one thing dearest to her heart – listen to music.
But now, singing once again brings the 68-year-old the same feelings of joy she experienced at the start of her career, leaving her job in the vege department at Woolworths to pursue music professionally back in 1980.
“I’m tremendously proud of my music,” says Patsy, who adds that it was difficult narrowing down her 100-strong repertoire to 24 tracks for the album Beautiful Lady: The Very Best of Patsy Riggir.
“Returning to music was wonderful. Country music is about sharing life stories with one another. It was great to be able to get up on stage again and share something that I love with others.”
Patsy is a Waikato country girl through and through. Born in Arapuni, the family moved to a small town outside of Te Kuiti when Patsy was six months old, and she grew up in a house without electricity – her mother, Betty, washed the sheets in a copper boiler and the family stored meat in a safe in a tree.
The family then moved to dairy-farming town Putaruru when Patsy was a teenager, and she still lives there with her longtime partner Lorne Gordon-Watkins (68).
When the Weekly visits Patsy on her nearly 1ha property, the peaceful home echoes with birdsong. The country setting has become a private retreat for the Kiwi star, who has actually never felt at ease in the spotlight.
“I was more comfortable with the cabbages,” says Patsy, referring to her days working at the supermarket.
Known for an exuberant stage and on-screen persona with her TV show Patsy Riggir Country, the singer admits she wore trousers during her performances, to hide that her legs were shaking from severe stage fright.
Despite her anxiety, Patsy became a household name during the 1970s and 1980s, voted New Zealand Entertainer of the Year in 1983. She also performed next to US country legends Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry theatre.
Looking back, Patsy says her greatest achievement hasn’t been the success, but overcoming her inner battles.
Nonstop performing and touring for a number of years finally took its toll – and in 1993, unable to beat depression, Patsy withdrew from the public eye. Her absence lasted nine years.
“There’s quite a battle that goes on in here sometimes,” says Patsy, pointing at her head.
“I stopped performing due to shyness and depression.
“It all became negative and it was a struggle to find something positive. I think I got tired and worked too hard, and got run-down with everything.
“Some artists write their best music when they are suffering depression, because they are trying to channel something positive into a song, but not me.
“[I couldn’t listen to music] because I didn’t feel I could sing any more.”
Patsy’s illness was also deeply upsetting for Lorne, the love of her life and partner of 29 years.
The soft-spoken Brit, who worked at the Kinleith paper mill in Tokoroa before retiring a few years ago, says he felt helpless as Patsy struggled.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Lorne. “A huge challenge. It was just so difficult not knowing what is going to help.”
But with his support, and finding sanctuary in her garden, thriving with more than 1000 camellias, Patsy was able to return to her cheerful self.
“There was no simple solution. I just gradually came back again, ” she says.
“It was a bad place to be, but I worked my way out of it. Now my music means more to me.”
Lorne and Patsy tell people they met in a brothel, when in fact the couple first met on stage at the Putaruru amateur theatre company’s production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1984 – Patsy wore a blonde Dolly Parton wig to play the madam, Miss Mona.
“He was actually the sheriff who closed my shop down. Obviously I was able to win him over,” says Patsy.
The couple have never married. “What’s the need? We are happy as we are,” says Patsy. They never had kids either, but there are no regrets.
Instead, animal-lover Patsy has hens Pansy-Ann, Daisy-Mae, Violet, Primrose, Buttercup and Bluebell, who wander around the property happily with her five-year-old corgi Amber.
“[Children] didn’t happen and there’s no point in dwelling on it,” the singer says.
“I had all my babies – they’re not normal children. They’re fury or feathered with four legs or two,” she adds with a laugh.
Patsy and Lorne do keep in touch with his children from a previous relationship – sons Angus and Rupert, who live in Western Australia and London, and grandchildren Liam and Greta (both six months old) – through Skype, where Patsy sings nursery rhymes and Teddy Bears’ Picnic to them.
She loves that music is back in her life and now combines her passions: listening to country favourites in the garden.
“I live by old-fashioned principles – I endeavour to treat people the way I’d like them to treat me. I like to think I’m honest and have been sincere to my music.”