Five-foot-two; eyes of blue; and oh what those five feet can do . . .
Say, has anybody not seen Barbara Mandrell?
Call her inescapable, call her inevitable. Country music star Barbara Mandrell started arriving full blast in 1979 and though she recently had to drop her successful television series because of exhaustion, she's taken to the road again with more than 100 concerts scheduled in a 90-day period. Thursday Mandrell performed at the Merriweather Post Pavilion; today she headlines an afternoon program at the Bull Run Jamboree at Bull Run Regional Park in Manassas.
"I'm a very proud person," Mandrell says. "My parents were always hard-working people; that's always been considered desirable, honorable. You know the old saying, 'hard work never killed anybody'? Well, I don't know if that's true but the old cliche' about anything worth having is worth working for is true, I do believe that."
She's picked up awards the way cabdrivers pick up fares: a good composite would be "Top/Favorite/ Female/Country/Vocalist/Entertainer/TV Personality/Performer of the Year" from assorted magazines, associations and academies. She's also the only person to have won the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year award twice in a row.
A People magazine poll last year listed Mandrell as one of its 25 most intriguing personalities. A sure sign of success? Several months later, People listed her as the second most boring woman on television (behind Morgan Fairchild) and Mr. Blackwell put her in first place as worst dressed woman. In pop culture, you learn to take the coal with the gold.
Mandrell is the first person to admit that the NBC series, which also featured her sisters Louise and Earline, gave her access to a now-massive audience. But she insists that "whatever success I've attained was everything coming together after 22 years of work."
Her stunning good looks and easy rapport with an audience made Mandrell a better candidate than more established country stars like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, who were always a little too country even when country finally was cool.
If the last four years have been played out at giddy heights, Mandrell, 33, can trace each cautious step back, weigh its importance, assess its impact. She's an immensely warm person, but behind a petite frame and startling blue eyes, she's a no-nonsense blend of self-confidence and determination, traits inherited from her father (who is her manager) and from her husband. Those traits manifested themselves when Mandrell was still in grammar school and insisted on answering teachers' questions at a podium in front of her class. More recently, she has taken to studying videotapes of her performances to eliminate minor flaws.
Mandrell started so young that she was reading bass and treble clefs before the alphabet. While other children picked up toys, Mandrell picked up instruments -- accordian, saxophone, guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin. "From the very beginning I was hungry for anything music had to offer." Born in Houston, but raised in California, she'd been exposed to heavy country, "Hank Thompson, the gospel of Martha Carson. Then, at 11, I fell in love with pedal steel guitar and all I wanted to do was talk about Bud Isaacs and Ralph Mooney." Within a year, Mandrell was good enough to demonstrate the instrument at music trade shows. That same year, she made her first television appearance; two years later, she was touring with Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and George Jones.
In high school, "I was singing country on weekends, but at the same time, I was living in a beach town with the surfers, and during the week at school, I was in an English madrigal group, in the honor choir -- as a coloratura soprano, of all things! -- in the regular choir, the marching band, the concert band!"
The fact that she's a Californian more than a southerner sets Mandrell a bit apart in the Nashville skyline. Her accent, for one, is malleable. "Depending on who I'm with, it takes that on. I was in mixed company recently and said, 'You guys come see us if y'all get a chance.' There it was, California and Tennessee in one sentence.
"I am a melting pot. Like Hank Snow's song says, 'I've been everywhere,' except Alaska." Knowing where she has been (she counted 600,000 road miles traveled with her son before he reached first grade), Mandrell is also acutely aware of where she hasn't been -- yet. In the late '60s, after a few years of touring military bases as a family act, Mandrell married the drummer in her band, Ken Dudney, and retired when he joined one of the services he'd been entertaining. She was barely out of her teens.
"I didn't miss my music, had a wonderful time being an officer's wife, living in Washington state. I'd never had a desire to be a recording artist, I don't know if it's because I was dumb or so completely satisfied with what I was doing. When Ken got his orders going overseas, that's when I rejoined my family in Nashville. But I had no intention of going into music; it just happened."
It happened at the Opry, where Mandrell, watching the parade of country stars, turned to her father and said, " 'If you'll manage me, I'd like to try and get on the other side of the microphone again.' I wasn't cut out to be in the audience." The process started, more commercially oriented the second time around. "Some really good records started to happen for me," Mandrell says. She also began to open for country monsters like the Statler Brothers, and pretty soon the television guest spot requests started pouring in; the rest is history with a twist.
For several years, NBC producer Marty Krofft had been after Mandrell about a series, but she kept turning him down. "Then one day, he saw a wallet-sized picture -- we're talking little -- of Louise and Earline and I taken as a Christmas present for my parents; we hadn't been photographed together in several years. Marty saw that, found out that Louise sang and played bass and that Earline played drums . . . That started him on another angle and he took it to NBC. That's where it started, from a wallet-sized picture of us girls."
The show ran for two years, reuniting the sisters professionally for the first time in a decade. But a chronic hoarseness aggravated by the 16-hour workdays forced Mandrell to quit or lose her voice. She will do several specials, but right now she's making up for last year, when the series allowed her to do only 48 concerts. "First and foremost I'm an entertainer and that means getting to the people."
There's more, of course, the aftereffects of music stardom: a series of Barbara Mandrell One-Hour Photo-Finishing shops is thriving in Nashville, with national franchising geared for the fall; there will be a fashion line ("not just designer jeans!"); sister Louise is putting the finishing touches on a Mandrell family bio; there's a two-week show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. She reluctantly has turned down a number of film offers, because of profanity.
"And records are constantly on my mind," she says, "not after they're done, after that I never listen to them." .
Except the next one. Due Sept. 1, "He Set My Life to Music" is Mandrell's first gospel album, with one side of duets with folks like B.J. Thomas, Andrae Crouch, the Blackwood Brothers and even the Sunday school choir from her own church. "It's been in the making for years," she says. There's been a demand for it inspired by the TV series, where Mandrell always did a small gospel sequence, "though, ironically, it wasn't tremendously appealing to NBC at first."
With the series in mothballs, Mandrell is obviously enjoying the road from her 40-foot Silver Eagle bus; unlike the buses of the would-be stars, this one is unlisted, with no huge letters splattered across the outside announcing who's living inside. It's home away from the $250,000 brick home in Hendersonville, Tenn., the lakeside retreat in Dadeville, Ala., and the condominium in Aspen. Son Matthew, now 12, is off vacationing with her husband, but Mandrell's daughter Jamie, 6, is one of those keeping life on the road light. "All my people -- the group, sound and lighting technicians -- are my extended musical family. Shoot, we're together more than most married people," Mandrell points out.
Jamie, of course, played Little Earline in some television sketches -- reluctantly, her mother adds. "She didn't want to do it at first, and I didn't want to push her. But she'd read lines with me at home and was amazingly good. But I'd ask her to audition and she'd say, 'No m'am.' I finally realized I hadn't told her she got paid, so I said, 'Jamie, you know you get lots of money to do this?' So then she auditioned! Now, when I sign autographs, she sometimes sits with me and she's just thrilled when somebody asks for hers. She doesn't really want to do what I do; she doesn't want to work, she just wants to sign autographs." Unlike mother.