My skepticism about what's called The Great American Songbook runs hand in hand with my distaste for Nashville's so-called countrypolitan era of the early 1960s — I'm a rock 'n' roll fan.
Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Jimmy Van Heusen were superb craftsmen, but their music represents a world that denied a lot of the hard truths and uncomplicated pleasures I find in the work of Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and The Rolling Stones. As for countrypolitan, it's kitsch with a kick — the production style Chet Atkins imposed upon some of Charlie Rich's '60s work is ghastly, unless you prefer your blues smothered in saccharine background vocals. But none of this matters very much when you consider the neo-countrypolitan American songbook interpreter Mandy Barnett, whose vocal style crushes all opposition.
For Barnett — a glorious throwback to an era of sublimated sex, big automobiles and that strange version of upward mobility that characterized Nashville's music business in its countrypolitan phase — the style really is the thing. Known primarily as a stage actress and singer who has portrayed countrypolitan queen Patsy Cline in the long-running show Always ... Patsy Cline, Barnett is a first-rate pop vocalist operating in Nashville, which means her music is at once sophisticated and populist.
Born in Crossville, Tenn., in 1975, Barnett began singing — and recording — early. "When I was 9 years old, I made a gospel record, and Gene Chrisman was on it," Barnett says. Her precocity is remarkable not least because Chrisman happens to be the drummer who supported vocalist Dusty Springfield on the 1969 full-length Dusty in Memphis, which found Springfield essaying songs by Randy Newman, Donnie Fritts and Carole King — all candidates for a revised Great American Songbook.
Barnett came to Nashville after winning a talent contest at the Dollywood theme park, where she had been performing for a couple of years. The prize was the chance to make a demo, and Barnett worked in an appearance at the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree radio show. Her performance caught the ear of producer Billy Strange, who had arranged Nancy Sinatra's 1966 "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." As Barnett says, "Billy heard me when I was on the radio that night, and we ended up working together. He got me the deal with [producer] Jimmy Bowen."
Working with Bowen, Barnett spent five years developing her approach. "When I first started in Nashville, Jimmy Bowen signed me when I was 12 years old," she remembers. "That was in the mid-'80s. From that time until I graduated from high school, I spent that time floundering around tryin' to figure out what to do. At the time, it was frustrating. But I mean, I was working with James Taylor's band on the weekends, you know?"
Barnett's vocal abilities were apparent to anyone who cared to listen, and she made her big-label debut with 1996's Mandy Barnett. Her rich voice effortlessly scaled the heights of her great predecessor Cline, and Barnett's unpretentious cool gave her interpretations a pleasingly rough edge that complemented her technically perfect intervals.
Still, Mandy Barnett faltered somewhat after its opening track, "Planet of Love." The album stands today as a curious bit of Nashville country-power-pop schlock, complete with several songs by super-hack songwriter Kostas. The problem was that Barnett's handlers considered Kostas' songwriting worthy of her talents. What she needed was songwriting on the order of, say, Marshall Crenshaw's. But Crenshaw wasn't a candidate for Nashville's idea of The Great American Songbook.
Barnett's problems were solved on the 1999 full-length I've Got a Right To Cry, which Barnett recorded for Seymour Stein's Sire label. If ever a record devoted to reviving a lost musical style transcended its sources, it's I've Got a Right. Produced by countrypolitan auteur Owen Bradley — Owen died during the sessions, and his brother Harold completed the project with Barnett — the record puts Barnett's amazing vocals into settings that billow with background singers, piano and pedal steel.
It's a classic — a knowing look back at a dead style. Barnett's version of Gary Walker and Porter Wagoner's "Trademark" is superior to Carl Smith's 1953 hit version of the song, and Barnett sounds like country's sultriest, saltiest formalist. Since then, Barnett has revisited her role as Cline, including a series of well-received shows at The Ryman over the summer. Identified with Cline and with an era that prized a sort of sophistication that has been lost forever, Barnett sees herself as part of a noble lineage.
"Singing the classics has kept me relevant," she says. "It's all about being more of a vocalist — which is what Patsy Cline was, a vocalist. Going in that direction, there's no boundaries. I can always perform and have a platform. You're not chasing fads and stuff like that."