100 Greatest Women, #17: Barbara Mandrell

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#17

Barbara Mandrell

2008 Edition: #14 (-3)

Barbara Mandrell completely transformed the notion of what a country music entertainer could 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 and then again in 1981.

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 from the CMA, 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, and the Country Music Hall of Fame inducted her in 2009. 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.

Essential Singles

  • The Midnight Oil, 1973
  • Married But Not to Each Other, 1977
  • Sleeping Single in a Double Bed, 1978
  • (If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right, 1979
  • Years, 1979
  • Crackers, 1980
  • I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool (with George Jones), 1981
  • Wish You Were Here, 1981
  • ‘Till You’re Gone, 1982
  • One of a Kind Pair of Fools, 1983

Essential Albums

  • The Midnight Oil, 1973
  • Moods,1978
  • Love is Fair, 1980
  • Barbara Mandrell Live, 1981
  • He Set My Life to Music, 1982

Industry Awards

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Entertainer of the Year, 1981
    • Most Promising Female Vocalist, 1972
    • Pioneer Award, 2001
    • Top Female Vocalist, 1979, 1982
    • Triple Crown Award, 2005
  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Entertainer of the Year, 1980, 1981
    • Female Vocalist of the Year, 1979, 1981
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best Inspirational Performance
      • He Set My Life to Music, 1983
    • Best Soul Gospel Performance By a Duo or Group
      • I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today (with Bobby Jones), 1984
  • Musicians Hall of Fame, 2014

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #16. Lee Ann Womack

Previous: #18. Tanya Tucker

6 Comments

  1. Alright!

    I may have mentioned this before, but it was Barbara Mandrell that got me into country music, having loved her since several months after I “accidentally” bought a copy of Just for the Record (for its fabulous cover photo) last year. Although her skills as an entertainer are well-known (how I wish to have been alive in her day!), I’ve always felt she was a criminally underrated singer. She possesses one of those sexy-yet-sweet voices that reels you in even if she were singing a tax form. I’ll admit to havin a soft spot for her actual music, too – have yet to listen to one of her albums (and I’ve got about 10 of the actual studio albums!), but in the Essential Singles, I would sub out “Till You’re Gone” – which I consider a boring straight-up pop number that doesn’t do her voice justice – for 1975’s “Standing Room Only” (my favorite country kiss-off, next to “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”) or her 1977 cover of “Woman to Woman” (love the vocals on that one!). (I admit, “Married But Not to Each Other” is the only one of those I haven’t heard more than a split second of.) If I were compiling a top ten list of my favorite country ladies, she and Suzy Bogguss have permanent spaces in the top two.

    I could go on and on about ol’ Barbara, but let me just say: No matter what your opinions on what the lady sang, where would country music be without her?

  2. Sorry… I meant to type “having a soft spot for her actual music”. You guys really should enable comment editing.

  3. Barbara just got those smooth vocals that’ll warm your heart. She can pretty much sing anything and it’ll sound good. That’s how great of a vocalist Barbara is.

  4. In 2008 I commented:

    Barbara Mandrell is not one of my favorite artists, although she was on her way to becoming a favorite before her R&B turn, Her early 70s duets with the great David Houston are among my favorite duets ever.

    That said , Barbara Mandrell is undoubtedly the most talented female performer the genre ever produced. An excellent singer and showman she was essentially the female Roy Clark, capable of playing a wide variety of instruments (steel guitar, guitar, banjo, sax, fiddle , drums and more) and playing them extremely well . She had a lively sense of humor (often directed at herself) and a supreme gift of gab. She was simply a terrific all around show business personality. She should make the CMHOF in the next few years

    After a long dalliance with R&B and Pop, she returned to her country roots with her early 1990s recordings for Capitol. IMHO the Epic and Capitol recordings are her best

    The auto accident of 1984 essentially killed off her stay at the top. She was not quite as prolific as some of her contemporaries and the unused material that MCA had in the can wasn’t especially strong. Of course, it didn’t help that she was unable to make live appearances for an extended period of time

    ***

    As Kevin noted, Barbara made the CMHOF in 2009.

    For many years I have handled injury claims, and with as many broken bones as Barbara suffered in that 1984 crash, I suspect that she has sufficient arthritis that performing on the stage became quite painful for her, particularly if dancing and performing her normal high energy show

    I would have loved for her career to have continued, particularly since her music had been taking a more traditional turn. She was very good at traditional country music, and it would have been fun to hear her as a bluegrass artist

  5. @Playboy Casanova
    I’ll second that. Even something like “Fooled by a Feeling”, which would be a least favorite of mine if it fell into the hands of any other star of the day, was salvaged by her vocal talent. In fact, it was the song that made me fall for her.

    @Paul W. Dennis
    As far as I know, Barbara’s never admitted to having arthritis. I just think it was a combination of the crash and the rise of newer acts that contributed to her downfall, plus she must’ve been growing tired of performing and didn’t care for non-showy gigs now that she redefined the term “country entertainer”. I’m not pleased she retired either, though I haven’t heard a thing off her last several albums, which I think will be among my least favorites of hers.

    As for the idea of Babs tackling bluegrass… well, she did pop up on the Bill Monroe album Bill Monroe and Friends in 1983, doing “My Rose of Old Kentucky”. Never heard it, nor do I even own the album (almost bought an used vinyl copy once, but put it back once I saw her 1979 best-of album and decided to buy that instead), but I know it exists. So even if it weren’t a whole album of the stuff, at least there’s that.

  6. When I think of Entertainer of the Year, I automatically think of Barbara Mandrell. She can play any instrument and was putting on amazing shows long before others realized they could do more on stage than just stand and sing.

    Her variety show with her two sisters was something me and my family watched every week. Mandrell could do comedy, play any instrument, and of course, could sing with the best of them. She is – most definitely – an entertainer.

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