A Clear Voice 

Mandy Barnett breaks away from Music Row with a brilliant new album

Mandy Barnett breaks away from Music Row with a brilliant new album

Mandy Barnett has unusual tastes for a 23-year-old singer. Most young vocalists aspiring to country stardom would likely model themselves after Shania Twain, or Deana Carter, or Mary Chapin Carpenter. But Barnett’s influences are much older and deeper—those musicians who form the bedrock of American popular music. One of her favorite albums is a 1960s collection by Ella Fitzgerald titled Misty Blue. On it, the late jazz great interprets several contemporary country and soul hits, giving an orchestrated sophistication to down-home Southern tunes like “Don’t Touch Me,” “Evil on Your Mind,” and “The Chokin’ Kind.” When Barnett describes the album she’s always wanted to create, she refers to that Fitzgerald collection.

“I think a lot of old pop standards parallel country songs in a lot of ways,” says Barnett, who grew up listening to her grandmother’s Sarah Vaughan LPs and her mother’s Ray Price and Webb Pierce albums. “Besides being absolutely gorgeous, those records emphasize melody and lyrics. They’re constructed the same way good country songs are. It’s about simplicity and understatement.”

Barnett has already spent a decade battling with Music Row executives over her musical direction. But after so many years of frustration, she finally got to make the record she wanted to make with her recently released Sire Records album, I’ve Got a Right to Cry. Loaded with lushly orchestrated ballads and elegantly swinging mid-tempo tunes, the album, her second, fulfills the vision she’s carried for years.

“This is it,” says Barnett. “This is the ultimate for me. This is what I want to do, what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Now, however, Barnett faces perhaps an even tougher battle. Despite the success of LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue,” which shares some of the torchy qualities of Barnett’s ballads, I’ve Got a Right to Cry clearly doesn’t adhere to current radio trends. And so far, signs are that the album isn’t likely to be embraced by country radio.

Thus Barnett’s album will provide a litmus test of sorts: Will the country music world ignore what is shaping up to be one of the most critically acclaimed country music albums of the year, with rave reviews already coming from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and such disparate publications as People and No Depression?

More to the point, why would country radio—that all-powerful media outlet that has the power to make or break an artist—reject an undeniably talented country singer who has been embraced by Hollywood film producers and TV booking agents? Already, Barnett has received strong support from mainstream television shows such as Late Night With David Letterman (which put her on the air the day after her album was released) and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (which will feature her on May 18).

Indeed, the only people snubbing the album so far are those in charge of the country music airwaves. That poses an intriguing question: What will it take for Music Row and the all-important radio programmers to take notice of such an astounding talent? Will she first have to find success in the pop mainstream, or even the pop underground? Should she give up on country radio, or hold out hope that commercial country music just might enter some kind of creative renaissance?

Barnett has been heading for this type of showdown for some time. I’ve Got a Right to Cry is the culmination of a story that began 10 years ago, when, as a prodigiously gifted 13-year-old, she earned her first major-label recording contract. Since then, she has openly fought with various record industry executives as she has struggled to step outside the usual Music Row factory line and make distinctive, personal music.

The last decade has included tenures at Capitol Records and Asylum Records, both of which led to unhappy compromises. Years of recording resulted in only one album release, 1996’s Mandy Barnett on Asylum, which received some critical acclaim but little radio support.

Barnett doesn’t view her time at Capitol and Asylum as a complete waste. She gained valuable recording studio experience, she says, and an education in how the music industry works. In the midst of all that, she also spent two rewarding years performing the songs of one of her idols in the highly successful musical Always...Patsy Cline.

At times, however, her devotion to an out-of-fashion sound threatened to end her career before she got a fair shot at proving herself. But then she attracted two unlikely allies: Owen Bradley, the famed 81-year-old Music Row producer who had long been in retirement, and Seymour Stein, the respected 57-year-old rock industry maverick known for gambling on unusual talent.

When Bradley agreed to work with Barnett, he consummated one of her long-standing dreams. “Doing this record was really going full circle for me,” she says. Two of the songs she learned as a child—Cline’s “Crazy” and Brenda Lee’s “Break It to Me Gently”—were produced by Bradley. “Before I ever knew his name, I loved his music,” she admits.

A legendary record man best-known for his work with Cline, Lee, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells, Bradley built a reputation as a producer who brought a sophisticated elegance to country music. I’ve Got a Right to Cry was the first major-label album to bear his touch in the ’90s. It would also be the last album he ever worked on, as he passed away on Jan. 7, 1998, before the album was completed.

For a different generation of music fans, Seymour Stein is no less legendary. As the founder of Sire Records, he was the initial champion of such exceptional performers as Madonna, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Pretenders, and k.d. lang. He was chief of Elektra Records when Barnett recorded for Asylum, an Elektra affiliate. He knew she was frustrated with the direction Asylum wanted her to take; so when he left Elektra to revive the Sire imprint, he made Barnett his first artist signing.

“I’m willing to stake my reputation on Mandy and on this record,” Stein says. “I believe she’s going to be known as one of the great voices of popular music. She’s an incredible talent. Anyone who loves music and hears her sing instantly loves her. She’s that good and that special.”

Mandy Barnett is sitting in the stately and serene Bradley’s Barn studio, an elegantly appointed yet homey building situated amid the rolling green hills of Mt. Juliet. Dressed in a wool sweater and black leather pants, the raven-haired Barnett appears relaxed and very much at home. For good reason too—she spent the better part of the last two years here.

Despite the difference in age between Barnett and Bradley, they had much in common. Barnett prefers the sound of vintage equipment, of live string sections, of cooing harmonies—all of which were trademarks of Bradley’s work. Indeed, these sounds are as much a part of the studio’s atmosphere as the wood paneling and the large, original Decca sign that hangs on the wall.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Barnett first drew attention because of how well she performed songs originally associated with Bradley. A Crossville native who grew up singing gospel music in church, she was 12 when she won a talent contest at the Dollywood theme park in East Tennessee. That earned her an appearance on a live radio broadcast of The Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree. Host George Hamilton IV followed her performance by saying, “I haven’t heard anybody that could sing like Patsy Cline in a long time. If there are any producers out there, you better call in.”

They did. Within weeks, Barnett was signed to Capitol Records by producer Jimmy Bowen. For six years, she worked with a series of producers, all of whom tried to fit her huge voice into a contemporary pop-country setting. Even though she recorded dozens of songs over that six-year time span, Capitol never released an album. Shortly after her 18th birthday, the label dropped her.

“They took me out to lunch to tell me,” she says, noting that Bowen wasn’t among those who arrived to deliver the news. “That was tough. I’m trying to eat a bowl of soup, and I have tears in my eyes and I almost choked. They started apologizing and saying how sorry they were, and I stood up and put $5 on the table and looked at them and said, ‘Don’t you dare feel sorry for me,’ and I ran out of there.

“Oh Lord, I was a basket case. I called my mother in Crossville, just crying on the pay phone, so she drove up here. I tried to go to a bar and buy a drink, but they wouldn’t let me. I thought if I looked pitiful enough, they’d figure I was having a hard time and they wouldn’t turn me away, but they did.”

Barnett took a job working in a foster home for mentally disabled adults. A year later, a friend called to tell her about auditions being held for the lead in a musical on the life of Patsy Cline. She needed a résumé and a publicity photo. “I didn’t have neither,” she remembers.

She showed up with a handwritten note on yellow legal paper stating that she was a former Capitol recording artist, and a Polaroid of her standing behind a gravestone in a cemetery, smoking a cigarette. “There were 450 people, and I was the only one who wasn’t wearing a vintage cocktail dress,” she says. “I was 109th in line. Everybody 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.”

She got the job. For two years, she sang 30 Patsy Cline songs a night, three times a week, to packed houses at the Ryman Auditorium. When the musical ended in 1996, she had a contract with Asylum Records.

Barnett’s 1996 major-label debut, produced by Bill Schnee and former Asylum president Kyle Lehning, attempted to reconcile the singer’s tastes with contemporary country music trends. “I felt like I’d gone as far in that direction as I could,” she says. “But when the record didn’t sell, they wanted me to go further—as far as the pop side of things. They kept bringing me those kind of songs, and I hated them. I mean, I didn’t half-hate them—I completely hated them, and I told them in no uncertain terms.

“I ended up screaming a lot at the end. I was so frustrated. Why would you want to make someone sing songs they don’t like?”

Lehning, speaking from his Hendersonville office, agrees that he and Barnett disagreed on musical direction during her stint at Asylum. “We were trying to do something that would get her some attention at radio,” he says. “The way we saw that happening was different than how she saw it. But she’s just a phenomenal singer—in fact, she might be the best I’ve ever worked with when it comes to standing in front of a microphone and just putting it down.”

In Bradley, Barnett found someone who encouraged her to follow the direction that most inspired her. When she approached him about producing her, he said he would do it if the record label agreed not to interfere in the making of the record. “He said the problem with the country music industry today is that there are too many people driving the bus. He didn’t like making records by committee, he told me.”

With Stein’s blessing, and with the financial support of Sire Records, the 81-year-old Bradley and his 21-year-old acolyte set out to make a contemporary album featuring sophisticated musical settings. The result will remind listeners of classic torch records from the ’50s as well as the cosmopolitan country songs of Patsy Cline.

Bradley spent a year working with Barnett, digging through old music folios to choose songs and build arrangements. The two completed only one recording session together, but that three-hour session produced four of the songs that appear on I’ve Got a Right to Cry. All four were recorded live in the studio with Barnett singing in front of a string section, a bassist, drummer, guitarist, and pianist—the way records were made in the ’50s and ’60s, before the advent of multi-track recording.

“It was the most inspiring session I’ve ever been on in my life,” says Barnett, who conveys the reticence of a shy person yet clearly owns a strong sense of self and a deep confidence in her abilities. “Everything was perfect. We couldn’t wait to keep going and do another session, but Owen was very careful about choosing songs and getting the arrangements right before we recorded. One of the last times I talked to him, on Christmas Day, he said he thought we were ready. He was real excited about the songs we had.”

Guitarist Harold Bradley, Owen’s brother and one of the most-recorded musicians in Nashville history, recalls how excited the studio musicians were during the session as well. “Everybody who played on it was really up, including Owen and Mandy and all the players,” he says. “The musicians hung around afterward and talked a lot about how much they enjoyed it. I remember [legendary session drummer] Buddy Harman asking when they were going to do another one.”

After Bradley’s unexpected death, which came during a bout of influenza, the central players had a difficult time reforming. But it was quickly decided that Harold and Bobby Bradley (Harold’s son and Owen’s chief engineer) would finish the job the producer had started. “It was pretty hard, psychologically, for all of us to come in here and record,” Harold recalls. “The first session was really the hardest one I’ve ever done. I’m sure it was for Mandy and for Bobby too. We only got one song out of that.”

Then they hit another frightening setback when Harold suffered a heart attack on Feb. 7. Nonetheless, they forged forward, even though Harold was too weak to carry his guitar case. Before long, though, they regained the initial enthusiasm and inspiration that sparked during Barnett’s first session with Owen at the controls.

“Owen was proceeding very methodically with the album,” Harold says. “When we stepped in, we felt like we had a very clear picture of what Owen wanted to do with the rest of the album. We tried to do what we thought he would want.”

One of the main hurdles had already been cleared, since the late producer and the young singer had been going over songs every week for nearly a year. Huddled intently in a small office in Bradley’s Barn, he would play piano while she sang. Together, they worked up more than a hundred songs like that, many of them old pop and country standards.

“Owen tried a lot of different songs and styles with her,” says Bobby Bradley, who often was working in one part of the Bradley’s Barn while his uncle and Barnett were playing music and going over sheet music in another. “He was an expert at figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. They spent a lot of time together, just the two of ’em. Between them, I think they knew more old songs than anybody in the world.”

In its way, I’ve Got a Right to Cry adheres to a style Bradley used originally with Cline and later with k.d. lang on her 1988 album, Shadowlands—the last major-label effort Bradley produced before agreeing to work with Barnett.

“One of the first times I got with Owen, he called me a ‘strange hillbilly,’ ” Barnett remembers. “He thought it was weird that I was 21 years old and I knew so many pop standards and that I sang like I’d started out in the big band days. He thought it was so bizarre that, at my age, I loved hardcore country and old pop music.

“I told him he must be a strange hillbilly too, because we both liked the same kind of music. He was the same way I was about what music we loved. But what he thought was weird was the difference in our ages.”

Bradley might have found Barnett a “strange hillbilly,” but the truth is, lots of ’90s country insiders will consider her odd: The combination of torch songs and light swing on I’ve Got a Right to Cry goes against the current “power country” trend, which emphasizes the breezy energy and modern-pop beats of performers like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and the Dixie Chicks.

Andy Paley, a staff producer for Sire Records who has worked with Brian Wilson and Jerry Lee Lewis, believes Barnett has a long future ahead of her—no matter how the current country establishment receives her.

“I’ve always got an ear out for great voices, and when you hear someone like Mandy, you’re just bowled over by what she can do,” he says. “When a voice like Mandy’s hits you, it grabs your attention. She’s just an incredibly gifted vocalist. And I respect the fact that, even at her age, she knows what she wants and she sticks to her guns. She can’t be pushed around, and she won’t compromise. That’s very rare these days.”

Paley worked with Barnett before she went into the studio with Bradley, producing three songs that appeared on the soundtrack for the movie Traveler. The two recently collaborated on another song featured in the new film Election (which, in actress Reese Witherspoon, has yet another Nashville connection).

Paley has also helped spread the word about Barnett among other artists and musicians. He recently played I’ve Got a Right to Cry for Brian Wilson, who immediately wanted a copy of his own. “He told me he constantly listens to the album, from start to finish—and Brian never does that.”

Paley also recently spoke with renowned guitarist James Burton, best known for his work with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ricky Nelson. “He wanted to know, ‘What’s going on with Mandy? When is the record going to be out?’ There’s such a buzz about her, it’s unbelievable.”

Still, despite all the encouragement and praise, only one question remains: Will the public get a chance to hear her music?

The question resonates deeply for Barnett, and it’s one that doesn’t promise an easy or a happy answer. But no matter what happens—no matter how many records she sells, or how long her record contract lasts—she takes comfort in knowing one thing. “I’ve finally made the album I’ve always wanted to make,” she says.

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