Mandy Barnett's Sire Records biography is the damnedest thing I have ever read from a record company. In spots, the thing looks more like a business plan than a young woman's history; never have I seen a label bio that contains the actual amount of money a company spent trying to help a singer discover "what kind of music she wanted to sing -- and what kind of music she didn't." But there it is, in black and white and green: $400,000. The mind reels at the figure -- half a million bucks up in flames, all because a then-13-year-old sounded just like Patsy Cline. And to think: Jimmy Bowen, the man with the open checkbook, once turned down LeAnn Rimes because he didn't sign kid acts -- hard to tour 'em, he once said. Or maybe the Mandy Barnett experience soured him on getting hooked up with teenagers who sing like a dead woman: He signed Barnett to Universal in 1988, then schlepped her along as he bounced from Universal to Capitol Nashville to his own Liberty Records. All he got for his trouble was a few hundred hours of unusable tape. Says so in the bio: "Despite all the years of effort, of the hundreds of songs that were committed to tape, no album ever resulted." She got dumped from Liberty in 1993, with zero to show for it.
The remainder of the bio reads like the pilot for an NBC Friday-night series, Hicksville; no wonder she's about to be country music's Next Big Thang, replacing Rimes and the Dixie Chicks on rock critics' to-do list. Barnett actually cut her first album -- a cassette, actually -- when she was just 9, recording a collection of gospel tunes at the behest of her father. Three years later, she was performing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Her tune of choice was, of course, "Crazy"; hell, she's already been Patsy Cline longer than Cline was. Barnett went to high school (graduated in 1993, God bless her), where she was a Future Farmer of America, star of the school's musical production of Annie, Get Your Gun, and, gawldangit, the prom queen. She also sang in weekly bluegrass shows till she was 17, when her parents split and she moved to Nashville -- but of course. Barnett eventually worked in steakhouses and in halfway houses for the mentally ill, both of which should prepare anyone for a lifetime in the music business.
A year after moving to Nashville, she turned her uncanny ability to sound like Patsy Cline into a paycheck, appearing in the musical Always...Patsy Cline, a musical based on the ill-fated singer's life. In 1995, MCA released an album of 18 songs taken from the original Ryman Auditorium production of the show; it's not a little ironic that Barnett sounds more like Cline now than she did then, when her tenuous imitation was just this side of Beatlemania! A year later, Barnett recorded a proper debut under her own name, and since it was a pretty nice little record -- containing roller-coaster renditions of Willie Nelson's "Three Days" (see: k.d. lang) and Jim Lauderdale's "Planet of Love" -- Mandy Barnett got properly ignored, despite charting a few songs in Billboard. (Hey, anyone who releases a country record -- and that means you -- is guaranteed at least one Top 10 hit.)
So Barnett, discovering it doesn't pay to sound like no one else, took the next obvious step: She rounded up Cline's old producer Owen Bradley, stopped belting and started crooning, and cut a record that sounds as if it were in the can 20 years before she was even born. Not that it's awful or necessarily evil, but I've Got a Right to Cry is, on the surface, what happens when sentiment and sales lock arms in a Nashville studio. Intention and homage aside, I liked this record the first three times I heard it, when it was called: The Patsy Cline Story, then Shadowland by k.d. lang, then LeAnn Rimes' Blue. (Then there's always Madeleine Peyroux's 1996 Dreamland, though she doesn't stop at Cline, incorporating Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Bessie Smith into her twentysomething variety act.) "I was determined to be Patsy Cline," Barnett once said, "not Patsy Clone." Pardon, but what's the difference? A knock-off is a knock-off, no matter what the sticker on the bottom of product reads: made in Nashville, or made in Taiwan.
Rock critics love I've Got a Right... because it at least touches on country's past; it's a disc by a child with a sense of history, even if it's but a single reference. Country critics love it because it reminds them of their long-lost icon; Barnett's their pin-up heir apparent, the apt substitute. And good taste goes a long way these days, even if music that tastes good means a hell of a lot more in the long run. Allison Moorer, Heather Myles ("Kiss an Angel Good Morning" way aside), the Dixie Chicks, and lesser-knowns such as Joni Harmes and Danni Leigh have scuffed up Nashville's polish enough to allow a place for traditionalists without hats. Never mind that their "country" is merely folk with a pop-and-twang spit-shine; Moorer and Myles are destined to become Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, if they're not careful -- or, worse, k.d. lang, gone and forgotten.
Barnett fits neatly among their ranks, the performer with the purist's ear and the popster's mind -- hence, the Porter Wagoner and Bryant brothers and Don Gibson covers that render I've Got a Right to Cry a collection of standards, no different than a modern-day jazz disc full of yesterday's golden-oldies echoes. That she pulls it off is a tribute to both her talent (the girl can sing, despite all else) and the cynicism of a music business that allows a young woman to make and fake her name playing dead-woman dress-up. Maybe the next time out, Sire Records boss Seymour Stein -- the man who discovered Madonna -- will let Barnett go back to doing what she does best: being herself. Could be worse, though. At least there's no "Purple Rain" cover.
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