“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
Barbara Mandrell with George Jones
Written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan
Radio & Records
#1 (2 weeks)
June 19 – June 26, 1981
#1 (1 week)
July 4, 1981
After “Years” became her first number one hit of the eighties, Barbara Mandrell released Love is Fair, her only studio album to produce four hits. Three of them were on the country charts: “Crackers” went top five, followed by the top ten “The Best of Strangers” and the top fifteen title track. A fourth single, “Sometime, Somewhere, Somehow,” was a top thirty AC hit.
Mandrell was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year during this time period, and a few weeks before she became the first artist to win that award twice, she scored a No. 1 hit with the lead single from Barbara Mandrell Live.
“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” wasn’t technically a live recording, at least in its single version that was sent to radio. That was recorded in the studio with an audience applause track added on. The album version was recorded later in front of a live audience.
There’s an easy joke to make here. Something along the lines of Mandrell never having been country in the first place, as evidenced by the slick soul arrangement of this track. I’ve probably made that joke myself in the past. But it’s really just genre gatekeeping disguised as humor, R&B and country share similar roots, and as has been more widely documented in recent years, a lot of what we associate with certain genres has more to do with label marketing decisions made in the early days of record making more than anything else.
It’s one of the reasons that George Jones doesn’t sound jarringly out of place on this track. They’re both Texas artists who made different styles of country music, with Mandrell doing more traditional work than she’s usually acknowledged for, and with Jones always using far more pop and R&B elements on his records than he was ever criticized for by the staunch traditionalists.
Now none of this changes the fact that this isn’t a very good song. Records this reactionary to current trends rarely stand the test of time. You really had to be there to understand why she was referring to country as being cool, and for many years after it went back to being anything but cool all over again.
This works more as a time capsule and an event record than it does as a song and performance on its own merits.
Mandrell followed it with another No. 1 single from her live album, which we’ll cover before the end of 1981.
“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” gets a B.