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Pop Goes the Country 

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Pop Goes the Country

Mandy Barnett grew up in Cumberland County, Tennessee, and by age ten was singing her summers away at Dollywood. She entertained at political rallies for both Lamar Alexander and Al Gore, hit the Grand Ole Opry stage at the ripe old age of 12, and at 13 signed a development deal with Nashville big cheese Jimmy Bowen, then at Universal. But instead of getting sucked through and spat out of the machine like some southern Celine Dion, Barnett discovered that she didn't much care for country music--at least not the kind that was coming out of Nashville in the 90s.

Last week Barnett released her second album, I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire), a collection that brazenly borrows the "Nashville Sound" of the 60s. Ironically, it's that poppy, orchestral sound--lush strings, tinkling piano, soft guitar picking, woozy steel washes, supersweet backup singing, and lead vocals that owe as much to Broadway as the Opry--that's indirectly responsible for the bland Stetson rock that passes for the sound of Nashville today. For better (the Mavericks) or worse (Shania Twain), it broadened country's palette to include pop and vice-versa.

The Nashville Sound, sometimes called "countrypolitan," was developed in the late 50s and early 60s by a handful of producers, including Chet Atkins, who worked with Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davis, and Don Gibson, and Owen Bradley, who made stars of Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline. In fact, though the press materials that accompanied my copy of the album take pains not to mention it, Barnett spent three nights a week through most of 1994 and '95 playing Cline in the hit musical "Always...Patsy Cline" at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, and at times on I've Got a Right to Cry, she still sounds an awful lot like her. Owen Bradley met Barnett while she was in the show, and eventually came out of retirement to produce four tracks on her new album. After he died last January, at 82, his brother, guitarist Harold Bradley, and Harold's son Bobby finished the job.

Barnett's first album was made for Asylum in 1996 with producer Bill Schnee, who had worked with Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, and Whitney Houston, and it was an obvious attempt to capitalize on her stage success without offending country radio's sensibilities. Barnett excelled on the tunes with more complex melodies, such as "Planet of Love" and "Maybe" by Jim Lauderdale, but on the sappy ballad "A Simple I Love You" she sounded woefully at odds with the material. Despite three charting singles and plenty of critical acclaim, the album stiffed, and she parted ways with the label. She was the first artist signed to Sire after founder Seymour Stein relaunched the label as a separate entity from Elektra in 1997. "I'm willing to stake my reputation on Mandy," he told the LA Times.

While she tackles a few honky-tonk numbers on I've Got a Right to Cry--including the Carl Smith classic "Trademark"--mostly she sticks with material that can clearly be classified as pop. Not for nothing have the songs on her album been covered in the past by singers like Patti Page, Perry Como, Tom Jones, and Engelbert Humperdinck. Page scored a number 11 pop hit in 1950 with her big-band rendition of "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming," a slice of tepid postwar romantic hokum with all the rhythmic sophistication of a windshield wiper. Barnett's version is instrumentally leaner--even with overripe backing vocals--and with her cool croon and subtle southern drawl, she stretches out the pretty melody with sharper accents, increased range and rhythmic lilt, and all around greater emotional nuance than Page.

I'd go so far as to call Barnett's record one of the best pop albums so far this year--but I'm hedging my bets on whether it'll sell like one. Unlike Owen Bradley's last production job, K.D. Lang's 1988 album, Shadowland, it's completely irony-free, which means it's wildly out of step not just with mainstream Nashville but also the alternative country scene. Sire seems to be trying to pique the interest of country radio by building Barnett a pop following--a strategy that worked for Dwight Yoakam and BR5-49. The label sent the album's first single only to Americana and "nonreporting" country stations, and Barnett was on Letterman last week; too bad most of the songs are too slow to propel a Gap commercial.

Postscripts

Pinetop Seven guitarist Charles Kim has written themes and incidental music for the Theater Oobleck production Pinochet: A Carnival; it's performed live by a sax quartet that sometimes includes him. The play runs Thursdays through Saturdays until May 15 at the Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, 925 W. Diversey; call 773-743-6652 or see the theater listings in Section Two for more information. The rarely seen Pinetop Seven will play Metro on June 3, toward the end of a two-and-a-half-week tour with Calexico.

In early March violinist Andrew Bird was in New York to record music for the sound track to Tim Robbins's forthcoming film, Cradle Will Rock, the story of Orson Welles's attempt to stage a controversial prounion opera in 1937. The score is by Robbins's brother David, who also contributed music to Dead Man Walking; Bird and the great Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera improvised on it. In February, Bird and his band Bowl of Fire cut their next album, Oh! The Grandeur, in New Orleans; it's due August 24 from Rykodisc.

The same label has just reissued three studio albums by Chicago industrialists My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult--Sexplosion! (1991), 13 Above the Night (1993), and Hit & Run Holiday (1995). Time has not been kind to them.

On May 4 Minty Fresh will release Wonder Boy Plus, the long out-of-print, self-released debut album by the Aluminum Group with ten previously unreleased bonus tracks. The band is currently finishing its next record, Pedals, with producer Jim O'Rourke; special guests include the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan on banjo. It's due August 17.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Tucker.

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