Mandy Barnett – Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This
Barnett’s role in Always not only put her back in touch with the music she loved, it landed her in the major-label spotlight as well. The show’s critical and popular success led to a record deal with Asylum, in turn leading to the 1996 release of Barnett’s torchy, self-titled debut. The album included material from such sought-after Music Row songwriters as Kostas and Jim Lauderdale, as well as a middling-good cover of Willie Nelson’s “Three Days”. Barnett’s singing was unassailable, but despite decent reviews, the record barely made a ripple in the country charts.
Disillusioned, Barnett and Asylum parted ways just as fabled record-industry executive Seymour Stein was reactivating his Sire label, the imprint that gave the world Madonna, the Ramones and Talking Heads. Stein, who had met Barnett while she was working on the soundtrack for the Bill Paxton movie Traveler, saw so much potential in the young singer that he made her the new Sire’s first signee.
“Seymour has always been this huge fan of country music,” Barnett explains. “Just getting together and talking about old songs with him was amazing. He knows every word to every song — the verse, when to go back and sing it again, the tag. And he isn’t the least bit ashamed to sing the old songs at the top of his lungs in a restaurant. It was really thrilling to meet somebody like that. It didn’t feel strange at all. I thought, ‘Here’s Seymour Stein. He signed Madonna, and he likes a lot of the same country music that I like.'”
Stein’s encouragement, along with the tutelage of a hands-off master such as Owen Bradley, led many industry insiders to believe that Barnett’s Sire debut would be a signal achievement. And, in most respects, it is. Barnett at times fights the musicians, such as on the chorus of the title track. And the strings rarely drip with feeling like they do on the Patsy Cline and Ray Price recordings they invoke. Still, from such smoldering ballads as “Mistakes” and “Don’t Forget To Cry”, to the Everlys-inspired “Give Myself A Party”, and the honky-tonkin’ cover of Carl Smith’s “Trademark”, there’s plenty of gorgeous music here.
And as those songs attest, the album’s stylistic reach is considerable. The fiddle-and-banjo-driven cover of Price’s “Falling, Falling, Falling” alone belies the old saw that the Nashville Sound is a string-drenched monolith.
What makes it all cohere, though, is Barnett’s range as a vocalist. Whether brassy, as on the swinging “Ever True Evermore”, or lovelorn and subdued, as on “Mistakes”, where her voice radiates heat like a glowing ember, Barnett is a consummate and compelling stylist. Allusions to Cline, as well as to Connie Francis and Patti Page, are inevitable.
“Patsy really influenced me,” Barnett acknowledges. “Style-wise and music-wise, we have a lot of the same tastes, as far as wanting to do those ballads. The most important thing I learned from her is how to hold it in physically and to let it out emotionally. But other than that, I think that we’re two totally different singers. The biggest difference is tone. I’m much countrier than Patsy.”
Barnett’s voice is not only more down-home than Cline’s ever was; her new album also contains more twang — note, among other things, the prevalence of steel guitar over orchestration. “I think this is one of the countriest records that’s come out in a long time,” insists Barnett, “maybe since Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam came out back in the mid-’80s.”
Well, not quite. I’ve Got A Right To Cry is indeed more country than the latest albums by Faith Hill and Shania Twain. But apart from the record’s fiddle-and-steel shuffles — which are doubtless too country for “hot new country” radio playlists — few listeners are going to hear Barnett’s collaboration with Owen Bradley and think of such neo-traditionalist touchstones as Storms Of Life or Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The record’s more uptown ballads might even strike some as good candidates for airplay on big-band and pop vocal stations.
Barnett nevertheless believes her album could fare well with country radio. “Given the right shot,” she says, “it just might surprise some people. It’s gonna have to be a grass-roots effort. It’s gonna be heavily press-driven. But we are definitely gonna try for the country market because I consider myself to be country singer, more so than a pop singer. I love doing pop standards and simplifying them enough to accommodate country instruments — steel guitars and that kind of thing. I think you can create a hybrid, which is basically what the Nashville Sound was anyway.”
ND contributing editor Bill Friskics-Warren agrees with Sire Records chief Seymour Stein that it’s a crime Webb Pierce and Faron Young weren’t inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame before Elvis Presley.