Singer Mandy Barnett will forever be linked with the legendary Patsy Cline, and she's okay with that.
"I will always perform her songs," says Barnett, who was inducted as an official member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2021. The Crossville, Tennessee native won original fame as the first star of the long running musical, "Always ... Patsy Cline," and is slated to perform two shows with the Old Dominion Barn Dance at the Beacon Theatre in Hopewell on Saturday, May 13. "'l'll do a mixture of country standards, and there will definitely be some Patsy."
Through her "Nashville Songbook" and Don Gibson tributes, Barnett, 47, has emerged as the predominant interpreter of classic C&W ballads - not just a Cline clone. Her most recent album, "Every Star Above," takes her away from sophisticated twang into torch song jazz, remaking Billie Holiday's "Lady in Satin" album and timeless songs like "For All We Know" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well," with the assistance of a stirring symphony orchestra and original arrangements by the legendary Sammy Nestico, Count Basie's arranger.
"It's not a one-off," she says of "Every Star Above," which Variety called one of the best albums of 2021. "I've always sung the standards and I'm going to continue doing standards as I always have, pop as well as country. Expanding my wheelhouse without abandoning any of my roots. I want to continue singing all the great country songs at the Opry and keep the great classic country alive while also doing other things."
Style Weekly recently caught up with Barnett in Nashville and talked with her about her early "unknown" career, working with legends, the thrill of being a Grand Ole Opry member, and, of course, Patsy.
Style Weekly: Talk about "Every Star Above." You and that orchestra are a powerful combination.
Barnett:It was a 60-piece orchestra and Sammy Nestico, he was 95 at the time, did all those arrangements [Nestico passed away soon after in 2021]. He wrote for Count Basie, the last of the real-deal arrangers. He was like, 'Oh gosh, I'm so old. Why didn't you ask me two years before?' But he was so organized working out the arrangements beforehand. [They] require a lot of preparation. I'm sure some people think I just walked up there and sang. [Laughs.]
- The cover of Mandy Barnett's 2021 album, "Every Star Above," which was a tribute to "Lady in Satin," by iconic singer, Billie Holiday.
Will you perform any of that material here?
I won't be doing those songs in Hopewell. This is a performance with the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a country music show. My career started out in classic country music and that's where my history is because of my association with Patsy Cline and [producer] Owen Bradley.
What was it like to work with Owen Bradley, Patsy's producer [on the critically-acclaimed "I've Got a Right to Cry" album]?
I was lucky to [collaborate] with both Bradley brothers. I worked with his brother Harold for 20 years. Owen worked well with women, was very reasonable, he didn't really dig his heels in. I'd heard stories about him and Patsy having fights every now and then, and I can see that happening. Sometimes a singer can get a little stuck in a comfort zone and you need a producer to pull you out of that. If Patsy wanted to stick with country, I could see them fighting over her going a little more pop. He probably had to push her out of her comfort zone.
I loved working with Owen. He was very prepared. We went through a lot of songs, had everything mapped out. And we cut everything live. He hired what was left of the A team - Buddy Harman, Larry Paxton, Harold Bradley, Pig Robbins, Farrell Morris was on vibes, Buddy Emmons on steel guitar, and he put me in the big room with all the strings. He said, 'I think if you're in the room with all these strings, it will inspire you.' He wanted to create an atmosphere and a sound that would bring out a really good performance in me and I'd never worked like that before.
Did you feel as though, with all of the Patsy connections, that it would come off as a recreation?
He was very adamant about doing something different than what he did with her, even though she was a big influence. 'I want to do something that's going to be you,' he said.
How does it feel being an official Grand Ole Opry member as opposed to being a guest?
There are subtle differences. The people at the Opry always made me feel welcome.. But there's something about being officially acknowledged by your peers and seeing your name on the wall and seeing your picture in the dressing room and being introduced as an Opry star. It's a dream fulfilled.
The first time I went to the Opry was when I was 10 years old and I went with Melvin Sloan of the Melvin Sloan Square Dancers and he took me into Roy Acuff's dressing room and I sang for Roy Acuff. He took me and met all the stars: Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, Billy Walker, Jeannie Seely, Grandpa Jones, Dottie West and it just started a dream. My life's goal was to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. I didn't know if it would ever happen and I was completely shocked when it did ... and on my birthday.
You've become synonymous with singing the classics. Do you have trouble finding good contemporary songs?
They are out there. It just takes some doing because the style of songwriting is different. And, you know, I'm not going to go out there and rap. [laughs]
But would ever cover a song by, say, Sturgill Simpson?
I could. I could even sing Miley Cirus' "Flowers." [laughs]
I guess the question is, could you do what Patsy was asked to do, get out of your comfort zone and do more pop music.
Absolutely. With the right songs, yes. It lies in the opportunities.
Talk about your early career. Does it start with "Always... Patsy Cline"?
I never would have dreamed that my first big thing in Nashville would be a musical about Patsy Cline, even though I looked up to her. I actually had a record deal when I was a teenager with producer Jimmy Bowen (Waylon Jennings, Garth Brooks) and thought I would release a record and have a recording career. Instead, my big break was a musical. From the ages of 12 to18, I was with Jimmy. Most people don't know that because nothing ever came out. But by the time I auditioned for 'Always ... Patsy Cline,' I had been in the studio for years working with Jimmy Bowen and all the big musicians of Nashville and folks from LA, like James Taylor's Band.
We were trying things. He wasn't sure what to do with me. At the time, teenagers weren't a thing in country music other than Brenda Lee and Tanya Tucker. So he was trying to help me figure out a sound. But I always came back to songs that had good melodies, I wasn't into following the trends.
I understand that you have a highway marker dedicated to you in your hometown?
It's not a highway marker, it's a Tennessee Pathways marker right there on Main Street in Crossville [Tennessee]. That is really special because my mom worked at the courthouse for almost 50 years and my great grandfather was the circuit court clerk there, and I would go there after school and everyone knew who I was. So it's very special that it's right there on Main Street.
The Old Dominion Barn Dance presents Mandy Barnett with special guests Ava Piland and Reeve Stimpson at the Beacon Theatre in Hopewell on Saturday, May 13. Two performances: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $40-$80. https://thebeacontheatreva.com