Mandy Barnett Delivers Masterful Performance on ‘A Nashville Songbook’

“You knew one day it would come to this,” country demi-doyenne Mandy Barnett says with the timber of an old hooker with a heart of gold. “Some things are just destined to be.”

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The ebony-haired vocalist first signed to MCA Records at 12 by iconic producer/label head Jimmy Bowen, has been knocking around Nashville in some way, shape or form ever since. A robust vocalist with a plush tone, she brought the part of Patsy Cline to life at the Ryman as a 17-year-old in the play “Always, Patsy.”  It was her Asylum debut.

Now 45, she delivers A Nashville Songbook, a collection of standards that spans Nashville’s various ages, phases, stages and classics. Whether it’s the rafter-busting big notes of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” and Elvis Presley’s sweeping “It’s Now or Never” and “A Fool Such As I,” the bravura bluegrass-tinged “Love Hurts” or a Western dance hall romp through “Heartaches By The Number,” she is true to the original, yet somehow creating a more nuanced read.

“I’m a song junkie,” she confesses. “I love it all: the old stuff, the classics, quirky songwriters, stuff from the ‘80s. Heck, blues, torch, George and Tammy… My last album had Greg Garing and Tom Waits on it, this one’s everything from Eddie Rabbit to Skeeter Davis, Anne Murray to BJ Thomas.

“After all these years, you hope whatever you sing, you can bring something new to it – but not lose the essence that made people fall in love with the song to begin with. It’s a tricky line to walk, but it’s my kind of tight rope. When you grow up singing Patsy Cline at the Ryman, Holly, you have to figure out how to make songs live, but lift up that essence people are craving. Otherwise, you’re just an impersonator missing the spark that makes it special.”

To hear her voice quiver slightly, spread out in places and bleed through Hank Williams’ ”I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” is a revelation. Recalling Linda Ronstadt’s definitive acoustic guitar and vocal take on her California country-rock masterpiece Heart Like A Wheel, Barnett and a grand piano explore the throb of unrequited love with stoic dignity and ache that presses into the open places, kneading the hurt in a way that is relief and torment.

Having worked with the crème de la crème of the last half century’s music men – Owen Bradley, Seymour Stein, Arif Mardin and Ahmet Ertegun, as well as more contemporary ciphers Doug Lancio, Marco Giovino and Andy Paley – the woman who’s as at home with a single musician or an entire symphony enlisted Fred Mollin, known for his work with Jimmy Webb, J.D. Souther, Johnny Mathis, Dan Hill and Kris Kristofferson.

Kristofferson figures prominently on Songbook. While everyone from Tammy Wynette to Nora Jones have taken on Sammi Smith’s three-week #1 “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” Barnett smooths the drama just a bit to make the song a reckoning for those who just can’t be alone, Friendly, willing and carnal, there isn’t so much desperation as recognition of what it will take to face the darkness in Barnett’s version.

“Kristofferson understands the poetry of living,” says the woman from Crossville, Tennessee, “Really simple words, maybe kinda complicated emotions, but it’s just so honest. Part of me thought, ‘Does the world need another version of this? And part of me thought, ‘How much more could this song possibly say?’

“It was considered risqué when it came out. Now, I think, it’s almost a survivor’s prayer, or someone who understands what they need and won’t apologize for that. Either way, the singer knows no shame – and I love vulnerable without shame.”

The young woman who balanced Kostas, Kelly Willis and Jamie O’Hara songs with a vintage Willie Nelson/Faron Young collaboration (“Three Days”) and traditional Appalachia (“Wayfaring Stranger”) seemed poised to be the next wave Emmylou Harris when she arrived. A strong sense of pushing the music forward, Barnett inherently understood vocal performance as the sheer layers of many emotions at one time.

With a tone that was cognac and thick velvet, she evolved into a singer’s singer. But as importantly, she maintained a relationship with great songs that transcended the obvious to explore dark places, forbidden desires, thwarted love and the ecstasy of pleasures realized. Like Rufus Wainwright, she’s not afraid to play with sensuality and the many shapes it can take, yet never gives in to the obvious or the base. In terms of tone, delivery, nuance and heart, she is the Judy Garland of our time.

“All I ever wanted was to sing,” she explains. “I didn’t get rich or famous, but I’ve worked with some amazing people with incredible pasts. I’ve played the best cabarets in New York City, been Cher to John Hiatt’s Sonny and made records with the man who defined Patsy Cline’s sound.

“And now I’m singing these great American songs that are so much a part of the place I’ve grown up and become a woman. I’m always reaching for more, and songs like this, if you commit, you can really push yourself.”

And the songs. To hear warhorses open in new ways, deliver sentiments that burn is Mandy Barnett’s real gift. Having always gone there – even as a teenager – she’s finally grown into all the instincts that have informed her music for almost thirty years.

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