For her first new album in five years Mandy Barnett left Nashville and headed for Muscle Shoals, Ala.
You can't blame her for wanting to get out of the city and away from Music Row for a while. After all, the powerhouse singer signed a major label record deal at age 12 and moved to Music City at 17. In 1996, she released her self-titled album, which she followed-up with 1999's critically-acclaimed I've Got a Right to Cry.
"I think it was good to get out of Nashville, to get out of the Nashville way of thinking. Even just being in Nashville sometimes you just get into that mindset," Barnett tells Wide Open Country. "You work at the same studio where you've done other projects. It was good to work at a totally different place with a different vibe."
The result is Barnett's forthcoming album Strange Conversation (out on Sept. 21 via Thirty Tigers), a collection of songs Barnett describes as "a little more rough around the edges and wild and woolly and soulful."
The latest release from the album (co-produced by Barnett, Marco Giovino and Doug Lancio) is "It's All Right (You're Just in Love)," which Wide Open Country is premiering today.
The song, which features the McCrary Sisters, has a timeless sound that set the tone for the rest of the record.
"Once we had that song in place, we knew what to do next," Barnett says. "I feel like every other song that was selected complemented 'It's All Right (You're Just In Love)' very nicely. And having Ann and Regina McCrary and Brandon Young on background vocals made the track pop and turn into something really fun and unique."
Listen to "It's All Right (You're Just in Love)" below.
Being signed at such a young age, Barnett says she frequently had to fight to record the types of songs she wanted.
"They had me doing all kinds of stuff. They didn't really know what to do with me because I was a kid. So I was singing a lot of really syrupy, mushy stuff that I hated about grandmas and quilts and all this sweet crap that I just didn't want to sing about," Barnett says, laughing. "Because even then I was really into Patsy Cline. I liked songs that had an emotional content."
Barnett says she was always drawn to artists like John Hiatt, who she shares a duet with on Strange Conversation.
"I went to Bug music with one of the people at the label and they started playing me John Hiatt songs and I perked right up. And I thought, 'I wanna be like him. I wanna sing his songs.' So I cut several of his songs. Of course they never came out, but that's when I first became aware of John Hiatt and just naturally gravitated to him and his writing."
Not one to sacrifice artistic integrity to chase commercial success, Barnett was always something of an outsider in country music -- even when working with legendary producer Owen Bradley, who helped put the Nashville sound on the map.
"Here in Nashville I couldn't get anyone excited about doing an album with Owen Bradley. But in New York they were thrilled and so they got all the rock press after it. We played Madison Square Garden, we did Leno and Letterman and all this cool stuff," Barnett says. "So it's all about perception. I guess in a way I feel like I've always been Americana. I've gone through periods in my career when I've kind of flailed around and not been sure what to do. But one thing is for certain; I have never really wanted to go after a contemporary country music career and go that route because it's just not me."
And when doors have been closed, Barnett has always known how to bounce back better than before. At 18, when she was dropped from her label after only three months, she threw on her one black dress (which she saved for funerals), picked up a Patsy Cline cassette from Hickory Hollow Mall and headed to an audition that would change her life forever. It was for a new musical debuting at the Ryman Auditorium titled Always...Patsy Cline.
"I had no idea what it was for," Barnett says. I thought it was for something in the park. At the time I was making $6.25 an hour and I just kept hoping it paid more than that--whatever it was--and that I could get it. I didn't even know what it was for until I'd been there all day. Finally someone said, 'This is for a musical. It's gonna be at the Ryman Auditorium.'"
What followed was a whirlwind of rehearsals and major morning show appearances. Always...Patsy Cline ran off and on for almost 20 years and allowed Barnett to embody one of her heroes.
Like Cline, Barnett is an interpreter of songs -- a torch singer able to tackle country, blues and pop and just about anything in between.
"I never bought the idea that every singer has to be a songwriter," Barnett says. "It's a craft that you're either good at or you're not and it's never been something that I'm passionate about. I've dabbled in it and I've enjoyed it but, for me, it's sort of like an actor with a great script. You don't expect the actor to write the script. I gravitate toward great writers and I love discovering new songs and old songs. I think a great song is kind of like a beautiful dress -- every person fills it out differently."
The remarkable Strange Conversation marks a new beginning for Barnett and shows a new side of her as an artist.
"I feel like this is the first album I've made since I've Got a Right to Cry where I'm actually stepping out as an artist to do something different and it's a real growth spurt for me," Barnett says. "It's completely different from anything I've done before but at the same time it's very much me. I didn't just change and become something completely different, but it is a different side. And I discovered a lot about myself making this album."