Barry Manilow and country music? Not quite an immediate association, but Manilow Country, airing Thursday, Aug. 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on TNN, turns out to be quite an entertaining two hours. Manilow and guest artists Trisha Yearwood, Neal McCoy, Jo Dee Messina, Lorrie Morgan, Kevin Sharp, Lila McCann, Gillian Welch and Christian artist Jaci Velasquez find some splendid common ground between Manilow’s pop music and their own country stylings.
The artists join Manilow in performing some of his most famous hits, interspersed with their personal testimonials about how his music has affected their lives and careers. Sharp credits Manilow’s “Please Don’t Be Scared” with helping him fight a life-threatening bout with cancer. Messina heralds “I Made it Through the Rain” for getting her through some tough times growing up poor.
McCoy recalls that he cut his teeth, professionally, singing Manilow’s pop hits at a Chinese restaurant in Texas. “I sang a ton of it,” he told the press during the February taping of the show at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. Always the ham, McCoy broke into a medley of his favorite Manilow hits including “Lay Me Down,” “All the Time” and “Weekend in New England.”
McCoy and Manilow open the show with an energetic version of “It’s a Miracle.” Later, the two sing “Something’s Coming.” Manilow obliged McCoy with a performance of his favorite Manilow song, “This One’s for You.” “In rehearsal, I asked him if he was going to do it and he said, ‘You’re the second person to ask me.'” McCoy said. “He said, ‘Would you like to hear it?’ And I said, ‘Would I?!'”
McCoy echoed the sentiments of most of the stars, who were genuinely thrilled to be a part of Manilow Country. “I just can’t explain to you how much this means to me, being able to do this show with him,” McCoy said. “I’m a major Barry Manilow fan, and I said that before I knew that Barry Manilow was going to do a country music special. I’ve been saying that for years.”
Also during the February press conference, McCoy explained he feels some country music has grown closer in style to the music Manilow was writing and performing in the ’70s. “It’s pretty much what country music is today,” McCoy said. “I know some people are probably gonna get mad about that because they’re saying, ‘Well, that’s not right.’ Don’t get me wrong, there’s great country music being made, but a lot of stuff (country music) nowadays is wonderful love music that Barry has been doing for all these years.”
In the special, Manilow tells the audience, “Sometimes I listen to the country radio stations and, you know, sometimes I think that some of the music I made in the ’70s and ’80s would fit really comfortably in this country music format these days. So, that’s what we’re going to try and find out tonight.”
The audience appears to enjoy the journey thoroughly, rewarding the performers with repeated standing ovations. The artists’ personal styles blend seamlessly with Manilow’s music, from Welch’s country swing version of “Sweetwater Jones” to Yearwood’s show-stopping rendition of “Lay Me Down.”
Manilow strutted his stuff with Velasquez on the Grammy-winning hit “Copacabana.” The Hispanic-born singer combined with him on the kitschy, salsa-flavored tale of romance and tragedy in the wild Cuban club scene of the ’40s. A banjo — yes, a banjo — took the lead in the beginning, yielding to a steel guitar added during the instrumental break. It actually worked, especially the banjo.
Nashville is a long way from Manilow’s Brooklyn origins. Born Barry Alan Pincus, Manilow graduated from Eastern District High School and attended New York’s prestigious Julliard School. His diverse musical incarnations are testament to Manilow’s impressive talents. He worked his way up as musical director for stage and television, winning an Emmy for the CBS-TV show Callback. Manilow’s commercial jingles for McDonald’s, Pepsi and State Farm Insurance became household tunes. Manilow Country features Messina and Manilow performing a lighthearted medley of Manilow jingles.
Manilow served as conductor for Bette Midler’s now-famous Carnegie Hall performance and co-produced Midler’s breakthrough album, The Divine Miss M. With the release of his first album, 1973’s Barry Manilow, one pop hit has followed another, for a total of 25 Top 40 hits. Manilow won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance for “Copacabana.” The Barry Manilow Special delivered another Emmy for Manilow. Other industry awards have followed for songwriting, ticket sales, singles and multi-platinum album sales. Manilow also won an honorary Tony for his record-breaking, sell-out performances at New York’s Uris Theater.
Manilow’s amazing career shows no sign of stopping. Dubbed “The Showman of Our Generation” by Rolling Stone, he earned two Grammy nominations this year for Manilow Sings Sinatra. He keeps a tireless touring and recording schedule. He also has two albums set to be released this year.
His dive into Manilow Country finds the pop star impressed with the talent involved. “I want to do a whole album, a whole tour,” he said in February. After Deana Carter and Manilow performed “Could It Be Magic,” he confessed backstage that the chemistry was so present. “Honestly, it was the most romantic moment I ever had on stage.” Carter agreed and said the two bonded immediately, spiritually, during rehearsal.
In closing out the show, Manilow says, “This has been a profoundly moving experience for me, because I discovered how closely intertwined country music is with the music I’ve been making all these years. I’ve always thought that country music and pop music were separate, but that’s not true — they’re just different, beautifully different.”