She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool: A Tribute to Barbara Mandrell
omething astounding occurs on the third track on the new Barbara Mandrell tribute album, She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool: LeAnn Rimes hits it out of the park like she never has. Her performance on her debut single, “Blue,” now sounds like the Star Search kind of moment it kind of was, especially when compared to the grit she delivers on her version of “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right.” The song’s a southern soul classic famously taken to #1 on the R&B chart in 1972 by Luther Ingram; Mandrell, long a fan of gutbucket soul, took her cover to #1 on the country charts in 1979. Produced by Dann Huff, Rimes lives up to and possibly exceeds Mandrell’s take on the song—just listen to the way Rimes leans into “thing” at the 2:20 mark, singing it as “thang,” smooth as can be. This is a career-defining performance from Rimes.
It’s fitting: Mandrell often got a bad rap from critics for being at the forefront of a pop-country wave in her late 70s/early 80s heyday—just as Rimes has for plenty of her career. While some of the criticism of Rimes is, admittedly, deserved, the sniping at Mandrell wasn’t. Go back and listen to Mandrell’s biggest hits (best compiled on Universal’s 2001 Ultimate Collection) and you’ll hear pure country that, if anything, is leavened more with soul than anything else. She was nominated for the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year prize nine years in a row (1976-84), winning twice, and she’s also the only woman to ever win the prestigious Entertainer of the Year award more than once (1980 and 1981). There’s a lot of love for Mandrell in Nashville (which makes her absence from the Country Music Hall of Fame slightly bizarre)—but more importantly, there’s a lot of love for her killer catalog.
Her catalog isn’t peerless, mind you; in fact, it’s notable that some of those paying tribute on She Was Country actually improve upon Mandrell’s original recordings. Dierks Bentley excels at on-the-road songs, so “Fast Lanes and Country Roads” is a perfect chance for him to take the rather soupy, overproduced origins and kick it in the ass, giving it the punch he gives everything up-tempo he sings (and plays). Another acquitting himself finely is country newbie Blaine Larsen, who heps up the barroom-piano honky-tonk of “I Wish That I Could Fall in Love Today” (Mandrell’s last top 10 single) as he sings it in his cool, clear voice—more of this, and he could become a critic’s darling, if not the next George Strait manqué. Most surprising to these ears is Sara Evans’ “Crackers”—while her voice is still frustratingly anonymous, the song’s production is nicely firm and chewy.
Alabama’s former lead singer, Randy Owen, delivers a lovely, sensitive take on the ballad “Years” (good enough to make one hope for a full solo album), and CeCe Winans pays tribute to Mandrell’s love of gospel with a great version of “He Set My Life to Music.” Gretchen Wilson proves yet again what a sensational singer she is on “The Midnight Oil,” while a pair of duets also succeed superbly: Reba McEntire takes on the iconic “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” with Kenny Chesney stepping in for George Jones’ part (their voices match nicely, and in some ways Reba’s the latter-day Mandrell anyway, so this makes perfect sense), while Shelby Lynne takes on “This Time I Almost Made It” with an assist from Willie Nelson.
She Was Country… is one of the year’s best country albums, thanks to the pairing of (mostly) great songs with (mostly) great singers, which is by most accounts the most you can ask from a tribute album. This is a fine cap on Mandrell’s legacy, a record that deserves to not only be heard by many but that will hopefully also drive newbies to explore Mandrell’s own, rich catalog. Country’s still cool, and so is Barbara Mandrell—as well as those pledging their allegiance to her.