Every once in a while, an artist comes along who both defies and redefines expectations. Barbara Mandrell was one of those artists. She completely transformed the notion of what a country music entertainer should be, breaking down barriers for women and raising the bar for all of those who followed her.
She was a musical prodigy, already playing the accordion at age five. Her father owned a music store, so Barbara and her sisters had a myriad of musical instruments at their disposal. Barbara took full advantage of this, and began playing an assortment of core country instruments, becoming particularly adept on the banjo and the steel guitar.
She also learned the saxophone. When she was just eleven, she began playing professionally. By age thirteen, her skill on the steel guitar had her playing on tour with the biggest acts of the day, including Patsy Cline, George Jones and Johnny Cash. After high school, she moved to Nashville to pursue a singing career, and she was signed to Columbia in 1969.
Her years with the label were marginally successful, though she was named Most Promising Female Vocalist by the ACM in 1972. A year later, her breakthrough hit came with “The Midnight Oil.” The song was thematically bold for a female artist, one of the first cheating songs were the woman speaks openly about doing the cheating. But despite the promising country-soul sound she was putting on record, her success was limited. She jumped ship from Columbia in 1975, and moved to ABC/Dot.
Working with producer Tom Collins, she was able to create a more commercial sound, and the hits started rolling in. Her four years with the label brought some of her signature songs, like “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” and “Years.” Her sultry cover of the R&B classic “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” crossed over to the pop charts. The ACM named her Female Vocalist in 1978, and the CMA did the same in 1979.
But it wasn’t her vocals that were garnering the most attention. Word spread rapidly about Mandrell’s jaw-dropping stage shows. A far cry from the typical “stand behind the mic and strum your guitar” country concert, Mandrell’s show was relentless, featuring elaborate choreography and costume changes. She put all of her expertise to use, playing various instruments throughout the course of the show. It was like nothing that anybody had ever seen before in country music, either by a male or a female artist. It even put some Vegas revues to shame.
The industry took notice, and Mandrell became the first person in country music history to win two Entertainer of the Year awards at the CMA’s, triumphing in 1980 and 1981. She remains the only woman to accomplish this feat. The ACM followed suit in 1981. Mandrell was recording for MCA at this time, and released her most popular single to date in the peak of the urban cowboy movement, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” The hit featured a guest vocal by George Jones. Her live album from that year became her first gold album.
At the top of her game, Mandrell took her amazing stage show to Hollywood, starring in the wildly popular variety show, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters. It ran for two seasons and earned stellar ratings. The show made Mandrell a country music icon, and was the last successful television variety show, ending its run when Mandrell chose not to do it anymore, walking away from a five-year deal to preserve her energy and sanity.
Mandrell’s music continued to do well, and she earned a pair of Gospel Grammys in the early eighties. In 1984, a near-fatal car accident slowed her down, but she fully recovered, and she became an outspoken advocate for seat belts. After returning to performing and recording for a few years, she announced her retirement in 1997, staging a farewell concert at the Grand Ole Opry.
Mandrell’s legacy has been celebrated since, with the ACM honoring her with the Pioneer Award in 2001. Several major artists banded together to release a tribute album in 2007, including such luminaries as Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney. McEntire has carried Mandrell’s torch more than any other entertainer, staging elaborate concerts with extensive choreography and humorous skits. McEntire has repeatedly said that Mandrell is her biggest idol and influence, and she’s not alone. Mandrell permanently changed expectations for country music entertainers, raising the bar for all of those who have followed.
- “The Midnight Oil”, 1973
- “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed”, 1978
- “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right”, 1979
- “Years”, 1979
- “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”, 1981
- The Midnight Oil (1973)
- Moods (1978)
- Barbara Mandrell Live (1981)
- ACM Most Promising Female Vocalist, 1972
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1979 & 1982
- ACM Entertainer, 1981
- ACM Pioneer Award, 2001
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1979 & 1981
- CMA Entertainer, 1980 & 1981
- Grammy: Best Inspirational Performance (“He Set My Life to Music”), 1983
- Grammy: Best Soul Gospel Performance By a Duo or Group (“I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today”), 1984