In-Cline’d to sing

Mandy Barnett’s classic country searches for a home

It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times about a thousand different people. A young woman from a small town in the hills of Tennessee makes the pilgrimage to Nashville with dreams of stardom, and even if she has the voice of an angel, the chances of finding success are slim. For Mandy Barnett, though, the dreams have come true — almost. She sang at the Grand Ole Opry when she was 13 years old, played Patsy Cline in a musical at the historic Ryman Auditorium when she was 18 and has had record contracts with three major labels over the past 10 years. So, why isn’t she a star? If it was all about the music, there’s no doubt she’d be known by country fans all over the world, but there’s much more to the story than just her talent. “The toughest part of the music business is dealing with the suits. They sell records, not art,” says Barnett, who at 24 has been through more trials and tribulations than many artists twice her age. Gifted with a magnificent voice and a broad exposure to classic country and vintage pop, she has struggled to find her place in an industry that changes almost weekly.

Following her stint portraying Patsy Cline in 1995, Barnett was signed by producer Kyle Lehning at Asylum Records. She released a marginally acknowledged album filled with decent tunes from some of Nashville’s top-gun writers, including Kostas, Jim Lauderdale and Jamie O’Hara. Lehning was going for hits, and the strong-willed Barnett found the recording experience quite difficult.

“I had a tough time with Asylum,” she says. “Everything had to be just perfect, and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.” Things soured even more when the record failed to make a dent in the charts. “Kyle blamed me when the record didn’t sell, so when the opportunity to get out of the deal came up, I left. In the end they were pretty nice about it.”

Barnett signed with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records while it still had some measure of independence within its Warner Bros. parent company and created an album that was a product of serendipity. Owen Bradley, legendary producer of Patsy Cline’s finest work, had seen Barnett play Cline in the stage production, and when the opportunity was presented, he came out of retirement to produce Barnett’s second album, I’ve Got a Right to Cry. Bradley and Barnett spent almost a year in pre-production, selecting songs and working out arrangements for what was to be his final work. Barnett fondly recalls her time with Bradley. “He was fabulous,” she says. “He was 81 years old when we started working on the album, and I learned so much from him.”

Fate was unkind to Barnett once again, however, when after one glorious recording session with Bradley at the helm, he became ill and passed away before the album was finished. During that session, though, they completed several tracks recorded live in the studio. “We did four songs in three hours, and it didn’t take hardly any time at all. He didn’t tell me how to sing, and he seemed to understand exactly what I wanted to do.”

Bradley’s brother Harold was called in to finish the record using Owen’s detailed notes to guide the production. The final product is an amazing showcase for Barnett’s voice, with a sound so authentic you’d swear it was recorded in the late ’50s. While some have criticized Barnett for borrowing Patsy Cline’s sound too much, she’s comfortable with the comparison. “There was a lot of backlash when I did the first album, but I think the second one is more a tribute to the ‘Nashville Sound’ than to Patsy Cline.”

Barnett is still signed with Sire, though it now operates without much independence from its corporate parent. Aware of the trouble other artists such as Dale Watson and Tim Carroll have had with Sire, she still feels comfortable with the label and is planning another album. She also understands the difficulties of performing the music that she loves.

“When I listen to the radio these days, I don’t know where they would play my music,” she says. “I don’t fit in with adult contemporary, and definitely not ‘hot new country.’ I would love for the Americana format to explode, but unless it catches on I don’t think it will have a big impact. I don’t have to do country music, and whatever I end up doing will be what Mandy wants to. But country music is in my heart and soul, and I would never abandon it.”

Mandy Barnett opens for Junior Brown at the Variety Playhouse on Sat., Sep. 9. Show time is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 404-521-1786.