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Entertainment News

CMA: Barbara Mandrell's Cool Country Tribute


"She Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool: A Tribute to Barbara Mandrell" on BNA Records.

By Phyllis Stark
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

As a longtime performer who knows the demands of a busy schedule, Barbara Mandrell is both humbled and gratified that so many top-tier Country artists took the time to contribute to an album that pays tribute to her and her amazing career.

"They have really given me a great gift of not only their talent and their time, but their love," Mandrell, the two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year, said in an emotion-filled voice.

The album, She Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool: A Tribute To Barbara Mandrell, was released Oct. 17 on BNA Records. Mandrell, whose six No. 1 hits include "Years" and "I Was Country, When Country Wasn't Cool," is still Country and, according to the artists who participated in the tribute project, still very cool. Sara Evans was literally raised on Mandrell's songs.

"Everything about Barbara Mandrell reminds me of my childhood and growing up as a Country singer," said Evans, who contributed Mandrell's 1980 hit "Crackers" to the tribute project. "My mother had me learn every one of her songs and perform them in our [family] band."

Naturally, Evans was eager to participate in the tribute and said she chose "Crackers" because "it is so cheeky and fun." For her own version of the song, Evans recalled the things she loved best about Mandrell's original and "tried to blend that with who I am musically." In the end, she said, "I'm really happy with what we came out of the studio with."

For Terri Clark, who contributed a rocking version of Mandrell's first No. 1 hit, "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed," Mandrell's work "was the start of my love affair with Country Music that's lasted my entire life."

Clark's appreciation for Mandrell's music dates back to her childhood in Canada, where she idolized the two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. As a 13-year-old, Clark was a huge fan of Mandrell's NBC-TV variety show, "Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters," which averaged more than 40 million viewers per week.

"I wrote her fan mail and spent all my allowances on magazines that had anything about her in [them]," Clark said. "I clipped them out, put them in a photo album and sent it to her. I drew pictures of her and sent them to her. I was just absolutely blown away with her and her showmanship. My mother was about to send me to therapy because she was tired of hearing about her."

For Clark, the recording session for "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed" provided a touching opportunity to show Mandrell that she was a lifelong devotee.

"I had a fan letter that I had written to her when I was 13," Clark said. "I made a practice copy of it and then re-wrote it and sent her that one, but I kept the original all these years. When we did the tribute record, I gave her the letter."

Clark describes the fan letter as "so 13-year-old. It was hilarious. I drew little pictures of cowboy hats and boots on it and signed it, 'Your friend, Terri Clark.'"

In the studio, however, Mandrell handled the moment with typical class, telling an emotional Clark she'd cherish the letter.

Although Mandrell retired from the music business 10 years ago, no one needed convincing that this groundbreaking singer, musician, actress, motivational speaker and best-selling author, who landed 55 singles on the Billboard chart between 1969 and 1989, was a fitting subject for a tribute.

Artist manager Clint Higham, a longtime friend of the Mandrell family, first hatched the tribute idea and brought it to SONY BMG Nashville Chairman Joe Galante, who said he "fell in love with the plan."

Galante called Mandrell an "unbelievable entertainer. When I first moved to [Nashville,] I remember her being on the CMA Awards show and being riveted by how she was as a host and an entertainer," he said.

Not surprisingly, Galante said, nearly all of the artists who were approached to participate "jumped up and said 'Yeah, she's meant so much to me.'"

Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire performed "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool," with Chesney supplying the memorable George Jones parts from the original, which is Mandrell's signature song. Other tracks on the album include Dierks Bentley's "Fast Lanes and Country Roads;" Blaine Larsen's "I Wish that I Could Fall in Love Today;" Lorrie Morgan's "That's What Friends Are For;" Willie Nelson and Shelby Lynne's duet on "This Time I Almost Made It;" Randy Owen's "Years;" Brad Paisley's version of "In Times Like These;" LeAnn Rimes' "(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right;" Gretchen Wilson's "The Midnight Oil;" and CeCe Winans' "He Set My Life to Music."

All of the songs were Top 10 Country hits for Mandrell with the exception of "This Time I Almost Made It," which peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard chart in 1974, and "That's What Friends Are For," which topped out at No. 16 two years later. "He Set My Life to Music" was not a Country single, but rather the title track of Mandrell's GRAMMY and Dove Award-winning 1983 gospel album.

Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan wrote many of Mandrell's signature hits including five songs that appear on the collection. "There would be no album, there would be no Barbara Mandrell, if it were not for Kye and Dennis," she said. Mandrell is delighted with the finished album, calling it the "ultimate compliment."

"This is not one of those albums where you have to skip [around]," she said. "Every single artist on there just gave it their all. I'm overwhelmed."

Higham worked with Galante and his A&R team and sought Mandrell's input in deciding which artists and songs to include in the tribute. Most of the participating artists chose the songs they wanted to cut and each artist recorded their individual track on their own, with the producer and musicians of their choice.

Mandrell thinks having multiple producers on the project "gives a distinct artistry to each individual cut." Producers on the project include Brett Beavers, Mark Bright, Buddy Cannon, Chris Harris, Dann Huff, Tim Johnson, Frank Rogers, Wally Wilson and Mark Wright. Clark and Lynne produced their own tracks.

While Mandrell was hands-on in the creation of the tribute, she gave a quick and definitive "no" when asked if anything about the process of putting the album together made her want to come out of retirement. She explained that she doesn't regret her decision to retire, no matter how much she cherished her career.

"I was never bored, never sick of it, never tired. It was all positive," she said of her lengthy stint as a top entertainer. But, she added, "I feel good that I said 'thank you' and expressed my gratitude and stepped out of the spotlight at the highest point of my career. . I wouldn't change a thing."

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