Born September 28, 1975 in Crossville, TN. Addresses: Record company Sire Records, 936 Broadway, New York, NY 10010. Management Dan Cleary Management Associates, 1801 Avenue Of The Stars, Suite 1105, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Tennessee-born Mandy Barnett has earned a rare degree of acclaim for her compelling, sophisticated voice and ability to interpret classic country material. Her smooth yet powerful singing style has been compared to that of country legend Patsy Cline, whom Barnett portrayed on stage for two years. The glowing reviews that Barnett has received have not translated into impressive record sales, due in part to her unwillingness to dilute her brand of country balladry to meet commercial standards.
Barnett's affinity for music was displayed at an early age. Growing up in Crossville, Tennessee, she was introduced by her mother and grandmother to pop and jazz stylists like Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, as well as country singers like Ray Price and Webb Pierce. She first began singing gospel in church, then started performing at talent shows and nightclubs under her mother's supervision. At age 12, she won a talent contest at East Tennessee's Dollywood theme park. This earned her a spot on The Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree radio program, which in turn led to an appearance at Nashville's renowned Grand Ole Opry.
Two years later, Barnett signed a recording contract with Capitol Records and began an ultimately frustrating six-year relationship with the label. Various producers tried to push her in a more contemporary country-pop direction, which Barnett resisted. "I think they were trying to turn me into a Wynonna type," she told USA Today after leaving the label. "I was listening to some stuff [from her Capitol sessions] the other day, and there's all this stuff where I'm just growling. It's almost rock 'n' roll." Capitol failed to complete an album to their satisfaction, and Barnett was dropped from their artist roster after she turned 18.
A year passed before Barnett made her real career breakthrough. A friend suggested she audition for the lead role in Always...Patsy Cline, a theatrical production to be staged at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. "There were 450 people, and I was the only one who wasn't wearing a vintage cocktail dress," she recalled in an interview with Michael McCall for the Nashville Scene. "I was 109th in line. Everyone else sang 'Crazy' or 'I Fall To Pieces' or 'Walkin' After Midnight.' I figured they were sick of hearing those songs, so I chose 'Someday You'll Want Me To Want You,' because it was one of her obscure songs."
Barnett got the role and went on to star in Always...Patsy Cline, singing the songs Cline made famous while dressed in a wig and cowgirl suit. The musical enjoyed a two-year run to sell-out crowds, and sparked interest enough interest in Barnett to secure her a new contract with Asylum Records in 1996. That same year, Asylum released Mandy Barnett, a song collection that attempted to balance the singer's natural style with current country hit standards. One of its songs, "Now That's All Right With Me," gained some airplay as a single, but the album proved a sales disappointment. Barnett began to feel pressured to conform to the country market, and she parted company with Asylum before a second album was recorded.
Things took a turn for the better when Barnett attracted the interest of record executive Seymour Stein, who was then in the process of reactivating his Sire label. Among other credits, Stein had been instrumental in launching the careers of Madonna, the Pretenders, Talking Heads and k.d. lang. He and Barnett met while she was recording three songs for the film Traveller. Stein was impressed enough to sign her to Sire.
An even more important association began when Barnett convinced veteran country music producer Owen Bradley to work with her. The pairing was a natural one, as Bradley was most famous as Patsy Cline's mentor and producer. In addition, he had produced hits for Ernest Tubb, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and many other country stars of the 1950s and 1960s. At 81, he had long since retired from the music industry when Barnett approached him. Bradley agreed to producer her provided that he had a free hand in the studio. Stein agreed, and work on the album eventually titled I've Got A Right To Cry began.
Each week for nearly a year, Barnett and Bradley worked closely together searching out songs and working up arrangements. "Owen spent a lot of time trying to figure me out," Barnett told No Depression's Bill Friskics-Warren. "And not just looking for songs for the record, but talking and sitting around playing and singing songs that we liked.... he learned very quickly that I liked ballads with a lot of range songs that say things that pull at your heartstrings or make you sadder, songs that evoke some sort of emotion." Bradley had completed a four-song recording session with Barnett before his death on January 7, 1998. It was left to his brother Harold and nephew Bobby to complete the album, guided by notes that Owen had left behind. Continuing on was difficult at first, but the remaining sessions were finished to everyone's satisfaction.
Released in 1999, I've Got A Right To Cry placed Barnett's voice in the sophisticated country setting that Bradley had created for Cline nearly 40 years earlier. Her sure vocal touch on bittersweet ballads like "Mistakes" and the album's title song came through convincingly. Other tunes, such as "Give Myself A Party" and "Falling, Falling, Falling," were in an upbeat vein, but also effective. Critics debated whether the album was in step with the more rock-influenced country styles of the 1990s. But critical praise was widespread nonetheless. "More timeless than retro, this is an album that closet country fans can play without shame and pop purists should go out of their way to discover," wrote Andrew Boorstyn in Interview.
As a live performer, Barnett won similarly high marks. Reviewing her appearance at Madison Square Garden as part of a Women In Music concert, critic Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, "Ms. Barnett had the vocal finesse: the husky dives, the controlled slides and the timing to make her voice break just as she confessed 'I don't know what to do.' Surrounded by showboating, she made understatement persuasive."
I've Got A Right To Cryindicated to many that the 23 year-old Barnett had a long and rewarding career ahead of her. Though the "classic country" label seemed to confine her, she expressed the desire to go beyond easy categories. "Just because you pay homage to something doesn't mean that it's retro," she told No Depression. "Owen always told me that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad."
by Barry Alfonso
Mandy Barnett's Career
Performed at Grand Ole Opry, 1987; signed with Capitol Records, 1989; left Capitol, began two-year engagement as star of stage production Always...Patsy Cline, 1994; signed with Asylum, released Mandy Barnett, 1996; signed with Sire, began work with producer Owen Bradley, 1997; released I've Got A Right To Cry, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Mandy Barnett (includes "Now That's All Right With Me"), Asylum, 1996.
- I've Got A Right To Cry , Sire, 1999.
- Billboard, April 17, 1999.
- Interview, April 1999.
- Nashville Scene, May 13, 1999.
- Nashville Tennessean, January 29, 1999.
- Newsweek, April 19, 1999.
- No Depression, May-June 1999.
- USA Today, April 16, 1999.
- Additional information was provided by Sire publicity materials, 1999.