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Mandy Barnett isn't always a Patsy

By Joel Bernstein, May 1999

It's almost impossible to read a paragraph about Mandy Barnett without seeing Patsy Cline's name mentioned. Barnett's career has often intertwined with that of the legendary Cline, who died long before Barnett was born.

The Tennessee native's first big break came when she was chosen to portray Cline in the Nashville stage show "Always...Patsy Cline" at 19.

She was a child prodigy long before the stage show came along. At 10, Barnett had a summer job singing at Dollywood after winning a talent contest there. At 12, she sang on Ernest Tubb's post-Opry "Midnight Jamboree" show.

Shortly after that, Jimmy Bowen signed her to a deveopment deal, but after years of demos and meetings, she was dropped without ever having anything released.Winning the auditon to portray Cline put Barnett back on the fast track. She was signed to Asylum, but her one album failed to set the charts afire despite critical acclaim. Asylum was one of the labels then under the auspices of Seymour Stein. When Stein was put in charge of the reactivated Sire label, he quickly signed Barnett.

For her second album, "I've Got A Right To Cry," Barnett, now 23, sought out Cline's longtime producer, Owen Bradley, in order to make an album with a similar feel to it. "I've always been a big fan of his production," says Barnett, describing it as "simple, but elegant."

Barnett doesn't want people to get too carried away with linking her to Cline, even though "when I was little, I used to go around imitating her. I imitated everybody. People enjoyed hearing me sing 'Crazy' like her." But now "when everybody says I sound just like Patsy Cline, I think 'That's not true.' I can sound like her, but I don't think anybody sounds 'just like Patsy Cline'."

"I'm a big melting pot of Patsy, Willie Nelson, Don Gibson, Carl Smith, Conway Twitty and Ella Fitzgerald. I couldn't name one person who's influenced me the most. I'm still influenced by people I hear."

Another term which a lot of people use for Barnett's music is "retro," which doesn't set well with her. It also ignores the fact that, even in the early '60's, no one was making albums like Patsy Cline was. Most "Nashville sound" records were more lushly produced, apparently hoping to bury the twanginess of the singer's voice. Bradley's relatively simple productions showcase the voice.Barnett does feel more of a link to country's past than its present. "It's my hobby to learn as much about (old country music) as I can. I love hanging out at The Opry with all these old stars. I feel sorry for people who think that country music was invented in the '90's."

Patsy Cline had to be forced to record her first hit 'Walkin' After Midnight" and her real breakthrough "I Fall To Pieces." She hated both songs.

Barnett is much more involved in selecting her material. She and Bradley worked together in choosing the material and only recorded songs they both wanted to do. Like Cline, Barnett has recorded an album that mixes old pop songs, old country songs and a few new country songs.

"We both brought in songs. Owen had more sheet music than records. I pick them up by hearing them on CDs and records." To illustrate the scope of her music listening, Barnett says "I've got the box sets on Willie Nelson, Ray Price, and Hank Thompson" among many other country artists.

The two new songs, "Who (Who Will It Be)" and "Whispering Winds" were penned by a team of guitarist/songwriter Pat McLaughlin and longtime pop songwriter L. Russell Brown (whose numerous diverse hits include both "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree" and "Sock It to Me Baby").

"Owen asked them to write songs. He didn't ask for a particular style. We never set out to make an old-sounding record or a retro record. We just wanted good songs with good arrangements. I looked for good melodies and good lyrics. We didn't have any A&R people."

Asked about the sources for the older songs, Barnett just rattles them off, apparently from memory.

""I've Got A Right To Cry" is by Joseph Liggins, a '40's R&B guy. Hank Williams Jr. did it in 1968. "Give Myself A Party" is a Don Gibson song I've been singing since I was 12. I just decided it was time to do it. "Trademark" by Porter Wagoner and Gary Walker, a hit for Carl Smith. "Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings" by Mickey Newbury. Don Gibson and Tom Jones did it. "Falling, Falling, Falling" by J.D. Miller, recorded by Ray Price. "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming" is an old pop song Patti Page did. "I'm Gonna Change Everything" was written by Alex Zanetis for Jim Reeves. "Mistakes" is from the '20's. Owen recorded it with (British pop singer) Vera Lynn years ago. He didn't think anyone else had cut it since the '20's. The people who wrote it also wrote (pop standard) "Among My Souvenirs" "Ever True Evermore" is a big band song we did western swing. "Don't Forget To Cry" by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant was done by The Everly Brothers."

"The thing that draws me in is the emotion. They're all different styles, but they all have that emotion. I like to sing torch songs, but I listen to all kinds of music. I like Blondie, The Pretenders and Concrete Blonde."

One thing that definitely was retro about the album was the way it was recorded.

"Owen was very prepared. He'd been working on these songs for a long time. We cut four songs in three hours." (That's exactly what a recording session consisted of in the fifties and sixties.) And they were cut live in the studio, rather than the usual modern practice of recording the vocals later over a previously made instrumental track.

"I enjoy doing it that way. There's a better feel when you can go in and do that. I honestly believe that my vocals with the band are a lot better. You can read their eyes." Of the modern way, Barnett says "It's like a karaoke tape."

"We really wanted to have a lot of feeling, and not worry so much about perfection. We'd overdub some guitar parts or steel parts, and we'd overdub the background singers. But there's some songs we actually cut in 10 minutes."

The album turned out to be a traumatic experience, however. Owen Bradley died after completing only four songs.

"It was awful on everybody. We all tried to be strong, but everybody misses him. I met him in '95. I started going over there and talking to him in '96. We'd sing and get a lunch. I've been fortunate to hang out with the Bradleys and learn a lot from them."

With the album already mapped out by Owen, Barnett and the other Bradley's (Owen's brother Harold and nephew Bobby) finished the album faithful tohis vision.

Barnett has gotten some TV exposure, recently playing both David Letterman's show and the televised portion of The Opry. Her music has been used in movies like "Traveler" and "Election." But like everyone who doesn't fit the sound or the look of today's megastars, Barnett has trouble getting heard on the radio.

Barnett, like Patsy Cline, can be enjoyed by people who are not really country music fans. "There are quite a few people in my fan base who are more into pop. There's always the possibility of me opening for non-country acts. You never know what I'll end up doing. My heart is really in country music. I'm from Tennessee, and I'm a country girl. I'll do pop standards, but there'll be steel guitar on them."