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
WHAT? 14? That’s it, I’m gonna’ come to your house and put a stink bomb in your dryer vent!
I’ll just have to chalk this one up to your youth! :-o
Juuuuust kiddin’! Sorta’! ;-)
Barbara Mandrell is quite simply “Da Bomb” although I guess you’d have to be from my generation to get that. She was to us what Shania is to another generation. And the way she played that steel guitar? Man o man! When I think of the term “consummate professional” Barbara Mandrell’s image springs instantly into my mind.
Talk about the epitomy of ETOY! Whew!
I had her at #10 so now I’m really trying to figure out who I’m missing! :-o
Barbara Mandrell was one of the artists I grew up with–your write up is excellent. She really did change expectations when it came to entertaining a country (and beyond) audience.
After I figured out the final fourteen, I ranked them myself. I had her in the top 10, but its great to see her represented here.
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 appearences for an extended period of time
Like Paul, I’m not a really big personal fan of Mandrell’s, but cannot deny her significant talent and impact on country music.
As with every other artist who I’ve commented on here, I can’t quibble with Barbara Mandrell being on the list. I do remember her TV variety show when it aired on NBC during the early 1980s, and her many big hits (“I Was Country [When Country Wasn’t Cool]”; “Times Like These”; and, of course “If Loving You Is Wrong”, which was a Top 30 pop crossover hit in early 1979). She was the consumate show woman, as much Vegas as Nashville. One can argue whether or not that was necessarily a good thing for country music, but that’s how she chose to present herself, and you can’t argue with the success she had.
I’m too young to have grown up with her music, but I’ve recently been exploring her work and I have to say I think she may be one of my favorites. There’s something about her that I love, I don’t know what it is but I can’t help liking her stuff.
I absolutely LOVE and admire Barbara Mandrell. She is the greatest. I am still a fan of hers, although she has retired.
There will never be another artist that will or can replace the professionalism, the talent, the versatility and the artistry of Barbara Mandrell. I can’t express enough how much I miss her. Hearing a new vocal or seeing a new stage performance. I was at her last show in 1997, balled my eyes dry. This woman taught me more in my growing up years than my own parents, She was an awesome inspiration and role model.
There will never be another artist like her. Barbara Mandrell, I salute you and will always be your biggest fan!
HI BARBARA MANDRELL IS THE BOMB, AND SHE DESRVES TO BE NUMBER ONE…………NOT THAT 14 IS BAD ITS GOOD BUT SHE DESERVES THE NUMBER ONE SPOT………..RHONDA DAY
What amazes me is how many of the top country artists are people I heard of growing up and I never considered country…Barbara Mandrell, Linda Ronstadt, Roseanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Marie Osmond, Anne Murray, etc. They were all very mainstream, were they not? A question for a guru: Is that because of the era of country music that they sang in, or because they changed styles over the years and recorded blues/R&B/pop/rock albums?
I respect her though she peaked before my time so I’m not as acquainted with her music as I should be. I get the feeling that she’s more respected as an entertainer and performer than for the quality of the songs she released. Am I wrong? Like I said I’m not really familiar with her music outside of the huge singles.
It’s an interesting question. I think for female artists, some of the ones that were the most successful also had that crossover appeal. I think such artists have been dominating the list recently, but as the list progresses, you’ll be seeing more who are more readily identifiable as country, though a handful of the women left had some crossover success.
I think you pretty much nailed it. Her legacy has a lot more to do with being a performer/entertainer than it does with the music she recorded.
Maybe I’m not thinking of something, but the only song that I can think of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s that crossed over was “Passionate Kisses”? The other women that you mentioned, Lynn, kind of fit the same category for me as well.
To answer part of Lynn’s question about female artists crossing between country and pop–this has been going on maybe throughout the history of country music, but I think it became a much more common thing after the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s, And several of the artists you mentioned, particularly Linda Ronstadt, had a background in the folk music and singer/songwriter movements of the 1960s, which did a lot to re-introduce audiences to very traditional forms of country music with a more modern rock context.
Though I am happy to see Ms. Barbara on the list, I think #14 is too low! She will always be #1 in my eyes! My devotion as a fan of hers has never been about her voice or music. Although, I enjoy both very much! My love is for the all around entertainer that she is and the person that she is. It is her personality and love of Christ that makes puts her in the top position for me. It is no wonder that she is admired by so many of her peers…there will never be another entertainer like her. I miss her very much, but I am glad that she is enjoying retirement and still being acknowledged by the industry and fans.
Barbara should be ranked higher but I am glad to see her included. I would love to know what criteria was used to determine the rankings of these ladies. If any single person expanded the country music audience, it was Barbara Mandrell. She simply brought more people into experiencing the joy of country music.
I think some people often tend to overlook, or maybe even forget, some of the powerful songs that Barbara recorded, ones that had powerful lyrics and also showed off her vocal range. Her lst No. 1, The Midnight Oil, is certainly an example of this. If Loving You Is Wrong, I dont Wanna Be Right, Woman To Woman, even This Time I Almost Made It…this are powerful songs which Barbara did a lot of justice to. She was especially good with the R & B flavor.
Both Years and Thats What Friends Are For are two more that people tend to forget about.
Sleeping Single In A Double Bed would be a crossover song but this one hit #1 on all three of the major charts and was #1 for three weeks in a row in Billboard. Perhaps some people need to look up and see how often this happened, especially for a female, prior to it happening with this song sung by Barbara.
Most of the country stars that really made it big had crossover hits. They did not stay with traditional country music all of the time. But, the truly great ones also did not turn country into country rock. They were pretty much singing mainstream country at the time.
Barbara, of course, is one who did so much more than record some great songs. And, perhaps because she was so good at these other things, her songs get overshadowed by some. I do not know, but I think it it s thought. She was certainly and entertainter in every sense of the world and I doubt there will ever be an entertainer like her come on the scene again. Her TV show spread country music to millions who were not at all interested in country music before. And, this show gave other country artists national TV exposure at a time when country artists could not get on national TV shows.
When I think of lists that rank the artists, I think numerous things have to be taken into account and when you get closer to the top of the lists, taking everything into account is even more important. Longevity on a top level has to be important and this is why I would never rank any newcomer very high on any such lists. There is no way to know what the newcomer will or will not be able to do over an extended period of time. Chart success, concerts appearances, what the artist does for country music in the big picture, awards, etc. Just so many things need to be looked at. And, unless someone is strong in all the areas, I do not t hink they should be ranked any too high on lists. So, while I am happy Barbara Mandrell has made the #15, on this particular list, she should be so much higher. I would probably put her at #8. I think the early females have to be included even if they can not compared to ones who came later so ones like Patsy Montana are very deserving of high ranks. Without these ladies, the others would not be where they are or were. The ones who paved the way deserve a lot of credit and more credit than most of them usually get.
yes, a great entertainer but her stink bomb of an album ‘No Nonsence’ which was tied into a panty hose commercial in the eighties is country music at its lowest point. She played a role in tanking the label EMI America with this rubbish.
Man, CMT ranked her way differently
Barbara took the doors that women who came before her and BLEW them off the hinges,,,, No artists since have made such huge contributions…. as for the Panty hose tie it,,, the label DID this DUH,, not Barbara herself,,, it’s called cross-promotion…….
was she country YES,, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure this out… it was the 80’s… the music, the sound was very pop sounding but her voice transcended genre’s… She could sing soul, R&B, Pop, Country and you can’t keep a voice like that contained in such a small minded box, like so many fans have……
Her songs were heartfelt, you can’t find a better written song than “Years,” in today’s music and still be generalized, non specific and still makes you want to cry…….
I’m amazed at the women that get HIGHER billing on these lists,, absolutely ridiculous….. Tammy sang every EVERY song like her husband was cheating right in front of her,, BORING….. Loretta, although I have most of her music, sang with such a twang you practically need to take a shower to get the dirt off you,,, Patsy was a great singer but the thought of stepping out of her box on stage would have gotten her fired most likely,, a huge voice yet no power in her career,,,,
Barbara deserves SO much in the history books that has labeled her 80’s reign a horrible drowning achievement for country music… Barbara SAVED country in the 80’s.. the same that Shania saved it in the 90’s… Country music tends to repeat itself OVER and over,,, then 1 act comes along and BLOWS up all over,,, GARTH,,, SHANIA,,,,, which keeps sales and concerts going until softer, more traditional acts pick up the lower levels……..
Barbara was as said here, DA BOMB,, and should be NBR 1 in all surveys…….. for SHEER talent across the board…… I feel women above her, Tammy, Patsy, Loretta get higher votes for PURE respect but for pure talent it should be BARBARA……… PERIOD
just a side note,, Barbara didn’t quite her show to save her sanity and energy,, it was for medical reasons.. she was told if she continued she would lose her voice due to overusing it. This is stated in her top selling book as well.
My parents saw her TV show live once and she was sick during the entire taping,,, having to do take after take, in order to sing the song without sounding sick…… TALK ABOUT a TRUE STAR,, DOlly is FAMOUS for lip-synching her own music, but Barbara was a true performer always performing LIVE…..
so many women on this list have given NOTHING to the promotion of women in country music other then just being there and having some hit songs along the way, but Barbara truly was a master of her craft…… She CHANGED minds about women,,,,, and it seems the haters are just Grumpy old ppl who still think women should just STAND there and sing….. HELLO she won ENTERTAINER of the year at the CMA’s TWICe,,, it had NEVER been done before and wasn’t even suppose to, had it not been for her it would never been done again.. now it’s common place for these things to happen but she gets no props in these surveys…. the write up of her is amazing here, as well as other LISTS,, yet she still never makes it into the top ten,,,,,WHY….
it’s because her reign was in the 80’s just like Shania and Faith get crap for being TOOO big,,,, big shows,,, gorgeous, fancy fancy fancy,,, and the traditional movement still tries to hold these women down…. get off your spoons and jugs ppl and realize that if these women didn’t exist,,, NEITHER would Alison Krauss,,, it takes BIG stars to keep the little ones afloat,,,,, yet the little ones get all the credit,,,,,do the math…….
I can name 3 women in the history of country music that get the short end of the stick..
1. Barbara Mandrell
2. Faith Hill
3. Shania Twain
WHY,,, hello these women are insanely gorgeous, they transcend all ideals of what a women is suppose to be,,,, and their shows are awesome and huge…. I would put Reba but Reba has managed to get credit because, regardless of what she records, her voice is still twangy and country and her tv show still had a country flair which kept her traditional fans……
I wish fans would get off their HIGH horse about the POP sound….. you work with what you’ve got in order to survive in music and these women, had LOOK, TALENT and great voices……
If you think Shania is TOO POP, it’s because you’re OLD…. if you want to hear pop.,,,,,, listen to the stuff she was going BEFORE she made it big,, THAT’S POP or ROCK if you will…… Faith’s voice changed over the years and I think it was more about trying to show she could SING rather than just twang through a song like her first album.. has it hurt her,, no,,, more fans…… it’s about fans, it’s about promoting themselves…. and to many ppl think music like literature and want to put this artist or that artist down for “integrity” GET off it, it’s about good music regardless of what kind of music it is…….
Did Barbara have the greatest songs, not always,, Crystal Gayle had TONS more numbers ones during that time period, but she is only known for her hair, and “don’t it make my brown eyes blue” and only because ppl thought she was saying Donuts lol… not Don’t it…. great song though but my point is you didn’t need to rack up hit after hit to be at the top of this list,,, and it amazes me that Barbara continues to be so low……
sorry to write so much but I stand by my words here as as singer, musician, songwriter, and performer myself…..
Travis – judging from the way you write, if you’re a songwriter, you must not be much of one
I’m glad that someone created a list like this and placed Barbara fairly high up. When CMT did their “40 Greatest Women in Country Music,” she was #38. I was very upset, because to me, it wasn’t “at least she made the list,” it was “holy cow, she almost DIDN’T make the list!” Nice to see her recognized since then in so many ways – here and with the ACM Triple Crown award and Country Music Hall of Fame induction. She’s always been my favorite and always will be. I was 9 when they started playing “Sleeping Single” on the radio and I’ll still be listening to her when I’m 80.