By Mike Greenblatt
Tennessee native Mandy Barnett has one of the greatest female voices in American country music today, which is why Nashville musicians flock to the 38-year-old’s side, despite the abundance of more commercially successful choices available. When it comes to recreating country’s golden era of great songs and stalwart emotion, few can even come close to Barnett.
Barnett was the last vocalist championed by the legendary Owen Bradley [1915-1998], who knew a little something about female vocalists, having produced Loretta Lynn and the late Patsy Cline (not to mention coming out of retirement in 1988 to produce k.d. lang’s brilliant “Showdowland” album).
Bradley died during production of Barnett’s “I’ve Got A Right To Cry,” the follow-up to her 1996 eponymous debut. Four albums later, Barnett has delivered one of the best country albums of recent memory: “I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs Of Don Gibson.” To keep up with Barnett, visit http://www.mandybarnett.com.
GOLDMINE: You really did exactly what you set out to do on this record, didn’t you?
MANDY BARNETT: Yeah, I did. It was a promise fulfilled. I had a lot of admiration for Don Gibson [1928-2003] before I met him. I completely loved him, a man with so much talent. Then, after I met him and got to know him, I was going through a really hard time in my life, too, and he was very supportive. He and his wife Bobbie had me over all the time. They helped me out. They were good to me. So it means a lot to be able to do this album in honor of him, and also help Bobbie, because since he died, she’s been trying to get his name out there. She started a theater called The Don Gibson Theater in Shelby, N.C., where he was from. You know how it is in a hometown. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing to get people to remember you.
GM: The artists who have covered his songs — including Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Reba McEntire, Neil Young, Ray Charles, The Glaser Brothers, Kitty Wells, Roy Orbison, Emmylou Harris, Faron Young, Count Basie and The Kentucky Headhunters — represent a virtual Who’s Who of pop culture.
MB: Absolutely. He’s like a Hank Williams.
GM: The songs he wrote transcended country music as a genre to become part of the American vernacular. But wasn’t he a total recluse?
MB: Yeah, he was [sighs].
MB: I think he’d been hurt a lot. Sometimes he felt like people didn’t appreciate him. The other thing is that he had extreme alcohol and drug problems. That news had been in all the newspapers, and he was really dogged for being an alcoholic and drug addict. That made him just want to stay home, not get out or ever be around people because people hurt him.
GM: But how many times do we hear about that with great artists? There seems to be an affinity between artistry and self-destruction.
MB: I talked to him about that exact thing. I told him, “There’s so many people like you, Don. Look at Elvis, Brian Wilson, Johnny Cash … All the geniuses have had problems with relationships and addiction.”
GM: The last time I saw you on a stage was in the 1990s in the theatrical presentation of “Always … Patsy Cline.” You blew me away. What is it about this long-ago and far-away singer that resonates so deeply within you that you’ve carried her torch ever since?
MB: I’ve always loved her music and loved the way she sang. She sang with a lot of emotion. Being a vocalist, man, it’s so like a dead art form. Being able to go out there and sing all those great songs, I get a lot out of it. I was 18 when I tried out for that part. I had no idea it was going to change my life the way it did, or that I would wind up doing a total of six runs over the course of the next 20 years. I still love the songs, but there’s been times, I admit, when I’ve grown tired of portraying Patsy Cline. I will never get tired, though, of those songs.
GM: I loved how you changed up “Sweet Dreams.” Patsy Cline took this Don Gibson classic to No. 5 on the country charts as her first posthumous hit just months after she perished in that plane crash. Your version, though, is haunting, and totally different from Emmylou’s. You even let the steel guitar carry what usually is the entire third verse. Plus, you really have an A-List of fabulous backing musicians.
MB: It all started with Owen Bradley. He produced me early on, and through him I got to know his brother, Harold, and his son, Jerry, both Country Music Hall Of Famers. They’ve been so supportive and have introduced me to so many great musicians. We got together on everything, and it all fell into place. God, I’ve even had [legendary session drummer] Buddy Harmon [1928-2008] in my band for a long time. He was struggling with his health, but you couldn’t hold him down. He would get in the bus and go to Texas with me from Nashville, and he would just love it. I’m really lucky to have had these kinds of experiences, and to have had the privilege and honor to work with some of these great guys. They’ve all been like family to me. They’d get frustrated with the way country music is, so to see someone younger who appreciates the music — and who they enjoy playing with — was like a shot in the arm for them.
GM: So, do you have any ideas as to why these beautiful country songs by this classic songwriter that you’ve recorded for this great album has about as much chance to get on “country radio” today as a snowball in hell?
MB: It’s been that way for a long time. This isn’t anything new. Ten years ago, we didn’t think it could get any worse, and it’s a lot worse today. The thing is, I never expected to get played on country radio. It’s getting so that the Americana format, or that “Roadhouse” show on Sirius/XM on satellite radio, plays me, and I’m really grateful. I don’t know what the answer is for the lackluster state of country music today. I really don’t. I don’t listen to it. I don’t get it.
GM: The garbage emanating from today’s so-called “country” formats on both TV and radio is giving real country music a bad name. So many friends of mine here in the Northeast, say, “I don’t like country music,” and it’s just that they don’t know country music. All they’re hearing is that crap that you and I try to avoid. I tell them, “I could make you a mix tape and you will, indeed, love country music.”
MB: It’s sorta like reality TV. Anyone can become a star. It’s all about a look and a sound. It’s not about having long careers anymore. It’s about manufacturing an easy hit.
GM: Who do you listen to?
MB: Mostly dead people, and if they’re not dead, they’re close. I will say that Linda Ronstadt has always been one of the biggest influences of my life, and Connie Francis, too. Man, Connie could really belt it out and pull back, just wring out the emotion. One of my favorite songs she ever recorded is “I Will Wait For You.” She just milks it. The Everly Brothers are huge for me. I’m still so sad about Phil passing away. And, I must add, although I can only take her in small doses, sometimes Kate Smith [1907-1986] blows me away. My grandmother used to play her music all the time.
GM: Your voice encapsulates that dichotomy between strength and heartbreaking vulnerability, just like Ronstadt used to do. It cracks in all the right places. Is that something you were just blessed with, or did you have to work on it?
MB: It’s important for me to be real and to come across as being honest. I heard that disparity of emotion in Linda’s voice, in Connie’s voice, in Patsy’s voice. If you show your heart, that’s something that makes a great vocalist. There’s vocalists who can hit on that note and wow you with range, but to expose your hurt and to make it painfully evident that you feel the emotions of a lyric, to me — that’s it right there.
GM: Is there a long-range Mandy Barnett game plan in the works?
MB: No, I just have to keep moving forward — keep touring. I just performed with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and that was incredible. It was one of the highlights of my life. I did a lot of the Patsy stuff, some of the Don Gibson stuff, I even did an old Gene Pitney song, “Town Without Pity,” that I sang in a movie once. I’d love to tour that show. I think people who go to these kinds of Pops concerts would love to hear some of these great old country songs from country’s golden era, performed with an orchestra like that. It works great. If I could tour like that and also keep recording, of course, I’d be thrilled. Just keep on keepin’ on, y’know? I have no real grandiose plans. I just want to stay in the game and not become completely obsolete. That’s my idea of success these days. I won’t let ’em get me down. GM