Barbara Mandrell caught the attention of country stars Chet Atkins and Joe Maphis when she was 11 years old, and toured with Patsy Cline when she was 13. Barbara and her family later formed the Mandrell Family band, which toured the country to considerable fame. She became the only female country musician to win the CMA 'Entertainer of the Year' award, twice.
Barbara Mandrell was born December 25, 1948 in Houston, Texas into a very religious Christian family to parents Irby and Mary Mandrell. Mandrell showed musical promise from a very early age. By the time she was nine years old, she was already proficient in the accordion and steel-pedal guitar. Right from the start, she had an affinity for the stage: "When I was a little girl in Texas, no more than four or five, I used to pretend I was Loretta Young. Remember the way Loretta Young made her entrance on the television show, so graceful and glamorous and controlled? I would make poor Aunt Thelma sit and watch me do my big entrance. I'd find one of Momma's dresses and I'd put on a show and sing. And Aunt Thelma would sit patiently through it."
Mandrell's father, Irby, was her biggest fan and musical mentor. He later became her manager as well and helped her get her first jobs, but she recalled that he was never demanding, only encouraging and loving. "Some people call him a stage father ... He wasn't a stage father. He was a father who raised his children to succeed. Our business just happened to be music."
In 1960, at the tender age of eleven, Barbara Mandrell was discovered by Joe Maphis and became part of his show in Las Vegas. Mandrell was so good on the steel guitar that her gig in Vegas led to an invitation—at age 12—to tour with Johnny Cash, where she met Patsy Cline and other musical greats of the era, all of whom were incredibly impressed by her talent and her pluck at such a young age. "When we started to play instruments, Daddy said, 'Don't ever let anybody say 'You pick good for a girl.' As far as I knew, there was only one woman in country music who played steel guitar, Marion Hall, and the saxophone always had a reputation as a kind of man's instrument, but those were the two instruments I played when I went to Las Vegas at the age of eleven. Later I picked up the Dobro and the banjo, two other instruments very few women played."
After the tour, Irby formed the Mandrell Family Band, which featured Barbara on pedal steel and saxophone. Her two sisters, Irlene and Louise, sang backup, with Irby on guitar and lead vocals and mother Mary Ellen on bass. Barbara soon fell hard for Ken Dudney, the drummer of the band, but he was 21 and she was fourteen, which created quite a scandal. Her parents separated the young couple and prohibited them from even seeing one another; Barbara was not able to see Dudney again until many years later, when he returned from fighting in Vietnam.
With the love of her life fighting overseas, Barbara put all of her attention and effort into the band. As an 18-year-old, she released her first single, "Queen for a Day," in 1966. A year later, she married Ken Dudney and briefly retired from music to become a housewife. But Barbara missed performing and returned to music in 1969, signing with Columbia Records and charting for the fist time with a cover of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long." In 1970, Barbara released "Playin' Around With Love" and also gave birth to her first child, Kenneth Matthew.
While signed to Columbia Records, Mandrell worked with country music producer Billy Sherrill, but her songs on the label did not have much success. Reflecting on this time, Mandrell later recalled: "There have been many times when I thought other people might be better singers or better musicians or prettier than me, but then I would hear Daddy's voice telling me to never say never, and I would find a way to squeeze an extra inch or two out of what God had given me." Barbara strove to make a name and a place for women in country music and was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1972.
Mandrell stayed with Columbia until 1975, when she joined ABC/DOT with producer Tom Collins. She also began collaborating with country singer David Houston and her success began to grow. Her first true hit album, The Midnight Oil, was released in 1973, winning her many fans. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Mandrell continued to release records with ABC, scoring her first Top 40 hit with "Standing Room Only" in 1975. In 1976, she gave birth to a daughter, Jamie Nicole, and in 1978 she scored her first No. 1 hit, "Sleeping Single in A Double Bed."
In the early 1980s, Mandrell remained a popular artist, releasing a string of hit records including her most famous song, "I Was Country (When Country Wasn't Cool)." She also launched a television program, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, which included musical performances and comedy sketches. Barbara began racking up awards, eventually becoming one of the most decorated country performers in history, winner of seven American Music Awards and nine Country Music Awards.
In 1982, Mandrell released an explicitly religious-themed album entitled He Set My Life To Music, showcasing her deep and lifelong religious devotion. In an interview with friend and fellow singer Cece Winans, Mandrell spoke mainly about her faith and said of her musical talent, "It's all, every bit, from God. He orchestrated all of it. The only reason I got to reap the benefits of his guidance ... is because I know him, I gave myself to him. When I was ten I got saved." The album won Mandrell a Grammy Award in 1983 for Best Inspirational Performance.
Just a year later, Mandrell's faith would be tested by a brush with death. She was involved in a serious head-on car collision while driving on the freeway and barely survived, suffering multiple fractures, lacerations, and memory loss. Her two children were riding in the car with her; she had an intuition just before the crash to remind them to buckle their seat belts, which saved their lives.
The accident changed the course of Barbara Mandrell's life. She reassessed her priorities and began to focus on her health, her husband and her children over her music, taking a break from her career. Mandrell's recovery from her injuries was a difficult one; she was often moody and volatile, suffering temper outbursts as a result of the post-traumatic stress. In 1986, she gave birth to son Nathaniel. That year she stopped recording completely, performing only in live shows, which she continued with some success until she officially retired from country music in 1997. Her last show was called "Barbara Mandrell & The Do-Rites: The Last Dance."
Ever since, Mandrell has focused solely on family, spending most of her time on her ranch with her husband, children, garden, and pets.
Country Music Hall of Fame
In 2009, Mandrell won induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her proud father, Irby, was present at the announcement but died a few months later, before the actual ceremony. It was, Barbara Mandrell recalled, one of the most emotional periods in her life: "My father, he really wanted me in the hall of fame. They [had] a press conference where they announce who the inductee is. My daddy was there. I shall never forget being able to share that with my dad. He worked over 38 years every bit as hard as I did. It was his. Then on March 5 was when he went home. And May 17 I was inducted. I was scared to death because it was an emotional evening anyway, how was I going to stand it? God gives us so much strength. I never knew until my father that God had given me strength. I did not shed one tear during my speech, He is mighty." At the award ceremony, Mandrell's friend and fellow country star Dolly Parton said, "We're all proud of you. When god made the universe he put most of the stars in the heavens, but he did leave a few here on earth like you to guide us along the way"
Today Barbara Mandrell continues to spend her time with family and friends and has slowly recovered from her intense fear of driving to live a normal life. " I am much more aware and defensive than I used to be," she said. "It's true. Everybody is out to get you. They don't know those are lethal weapons, those automobiles ... But I kept going. Now I come home in rush hour, and I'm fine. I've got my independence again. No telling what I'll do next."
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