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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Mandy Barnett branches out from classic country with 'Strange Conversation'

Mandy Barnett's "It's All Right (You're Just in Love)"

Among Nashville classic country cognoscenti, Mandy Barnett is the go-to girl.

Forever known for her title role in the original production of Always . . . Patsy Cline—and the original Nashville cast album recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium and released by Decca in 1995—Barnett has epitomized the Cline style of classic “Nashville Sound” country music ever since. She even worked with Cline’s legendary producer and Nashville Sound architect Owen Bradley on her 1999 album I’ve Got a Right to Cry, and when he died during the production, his brother Harold Bradley, himself a country music legend (and fellow Country Music Hall of Fame inductee) as a vastly recorded guitarist, helped complete it.

But there’s more to Mandy Barnett than classic country/Americana stylings, as her new album Strange Conversation attests. Taking a different tack than her previous recordings (her 2013 I Can't Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson tribute to the Country Music Hall of Fame singer-songwriter being the most recent), she now covers everything from blues singer Mable John’s “More Lovin’,” Sanford Clark’s rockabilly hit “The Fool,” Tom Waits’ “Puttin’ on the Dog,” Americana singer-songwriter Greg Garing’s “Dream Too Real to Hold,” The Tams’ Beach Music classic “It's All Right (You're Just in Love),” R&B great Andre Williams’ “Put a Chain on It,” Neil Sedaka’s “My World Keeps Slipping Away,” and Sonny & Cher’s “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” here a duet with her “big hero” John Hiatt.

The titletrack comes from the obscure but acclaimed late soul-blues singer-songwriter Ted Hawkins.

“Some people automatically assume that what you’ve done is all you can do,” says Barnett, acknowledging that many do indeed see her as a strictly classic country artist. “But I really can do all kinds of music. I just haven’t had the opportunity. So this album is different from anything I’ve done before—that’s for sure!”

In fact, that was her intention.

“I was trying to do something different: I moved here [from Crossville, Tennessee] when I was a teenager, and started doing Patsy Cline out of the chute and working with Owen Bradley. I absolutely loved that lush, polished, classic country music and immensely enjoyed singing it, but wanted to tap into other genres and influences that I hadn’t had the opportunity to sing.”

She cites one of her greatest influences, Linda Ronstadt.

“She did everything--and I loved that about her,” says Barnett. “Same with Ray Charles. So I wanted to show different sides of myself for me--and to make new fans, and grow and move forward with my life.”

Strange Conversation was produced at Muscle Shoals by Marco Giovino and Doug Lancio for Thirty Tigers and Barnett’s own label Dame Productions—home of her preceding Gibson tribute and her 2010 Winter Wonderland Christmas album.

“Marco, who’s played drums for Robert Plant, approached me about doing a record,” Barnett recalls. “People have approached me at different times about doing records, but with songs that suck, so I wanted to hear his idea of a good song: If he started sending me songs I liked, it was worth giving it a shot—and that’s what happened. He sent songs that were different, but that I could hear myself singing very easily.”

Neil Sedaka actually pitched “My World Keeps Slipping Away” personally, after Seymour Stein, who released I’ve Got a Right to Cry on his Sire Records label, alerted her to Sedaka’s interest.

“I brought some of the songs to the table, but I wanted someone else to bring a different perspective,” says Barnett. “I really wanted what used to be the traditional relationship with a producer: I didn’t want to have to do it all myself—but I didn’t want a moron with bad taste in music, either. But Marco has taste and knows what he’s doing.”

She likens the experience to working with Owen Bradley.

“If you’re working with Owen, you really don’t have to worry, but just sit back and relax. That’s how we made I’ve Got a Right to Cry; he and I tossed songs back and forth, and he always came to the table with wonderful songs and ideas.”

But she hastens to add that she’s not forsaking her roots.

“I’m not just taking a drastic leap all of a sudden, and my life’s completely different,” Barnett concludes. “I’m still playing the Opry and singing classic country with symphony orchestras, so it’s not something like, ‘Okay, I’ve done classic country and stopped, and now I’m doing this.’ It’s just that I’m expanding.”



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