Barry Manilow fans packed the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville last night for an evening of “country meets Manilow pop.” Manilow Country pairs the pop star with country stars and will be a TNN special, airing April 11, that salutes Manilow’s 25-year music career. This will be the network’s first-ever high definition broadcast. Trisha Yearwood, Neal McCoy, Deana Carter, Jo Dee Messina, Lorrie Morgan, Kevin Sharp, Lila McCann, Gillian Welch and Christian artist Jaci Velasquez, performed their favorite Manilow hits to repeated standing ovations.
“The whole reason I agreed to do this is that I listen to country radio now and again and I actually hear songs that sound like my old stuff from the ’70s and ’80s and (the music) would sound very comfortable in the country music format. It feels very familiar, very comfortable,” Manilow said backstage after the taping.
The concept worked, and the Manilow songs each artist chose to perform seemed to hold a deep, personal significance. Trisha Yearwood told Manilow, “The very first album I ever bought with my own money was Barry Manilow Live. “Lay Me Down” was my favorite song on the album and I never thought I’d ever be singing it with you.”
Neal McCoy, twice named TNN/Music City News Country Awards Entertainer of the Year, was a perfect fit with Manilow’s consummate showmanship. Manilow opened the show with McCoy on a duet of “It’s a Miracle,” and later performed another duet on “Something’s Coming.” McCoy joked, “I begged to get on this show!”
Kevin Sharp credits Manilow’s song, “Please Don’t Be Scared,” with helping him fight a life-threatening disease, “My senior year in high school, my choir teacher and I didn’t get along, but we had one thing in common: Barry Manilow music. So we could both talk about it, and then relate to it.” Sharp was diagnosed with bone cancer after graduating from high school and said, “When I was told I had six months to live, my choir teacher came to the hospital and brought me Barry Manilow’s latest album that had “Please Don’t Be Scared” on it. That song got me through so many nights of not knowing if tomorrow was going to come. I truly believe that song saved my life.”
Manilow’s duet with Deana Carter on “Could It Be Magic” turned out to be a career milestone, of sorts, for the entertainer whom Rolling Stone magazine dubbed “the showman of our generation.” During the segment with Carter, Manilow hesitated, then stopped the performance several times and laughingly told the audience, “I got lost in her eyes. I can’t look!” At one point, Carter went over to Manilow and wrapped her arms around him from behind, giving him a hug, with neither of them missing a beat on the song.
Manilow later admitted that during the duet with Carter, “We found ourselves lost in each other, like during the rehearsal. I got lost in her eyes. It was so romantic. Honestly, it was the most romantic moment I ever had on stage.”
Throughout the evening, Manilow performed some of his most popular hits, from “Mandy” to “Tryin’ To Get The Feeling Again” with just his band. The cheering audience seemed to enjoy the solo performances as much as the duets.
Jo Dee Messina turned out to be quite the comedienne when introducing the medley segment. She deadpanned, “I hope these songs touched you as much as they touched me. I always get so emotional. I hope I can get through it.” At this point, Messina broke into the Manilow-penned State Farm Insurance jingle and then continued with other familiar commercial ditties for Band-Aids, a bathroom bowl cleaner, Pepsi and McDonald’s.
On a serious note, while introducing Manilow’s stirring hit, “I Made It Through the Rain,” Messina said the song had helped pull her through tough times growing up, “Seems like at one time or another in life we feel like an underdog. Instead of using it as an excuse, it can be a reason to try even harder and that’s what this song is about.”
Other performances for the special included Lorrie Morgan’s emotional version of Manilow’s smash single, “Weekend In New England.” In sharing with Manilow how much she has enjoyed some of his sadder songs, Morgan quipped, “I’m a sucker for suffering.”
Gillian Welch reworked, “Sweetwater Jones,” a song from Manilow’s first album, into a fine country swing tune. Manilow provided harmony vocals and played upright piano, in what turned out to be a standout moment in the show that revealed an earthier side of Manilow. Welch’s parents were writers for the Manilow special and have worked with him in Hollywood for many years.
Rounding out the evening’s performances, Christian artist Jaci Velasquez and Manilow did a spicy version of “Copacabana,” while country teen sensation Lila McCann performed “Daybreak” and a song and dance routine with Manilow on “Can’t Smile.” McCann said she grew up on Manilow music, because her mother has all his records and was thrilled to hear her daughter was going to do a special with Barry Manilow.
Manilow was relaxed and cutting up with his fans throughout the show and recalled the first time he ever played in Nashville, “It was at Nashville’s Exit/Inn in the ’70s, and I was nervous about how my music would be accepted by a Nashville audience. They were so generous and so accepting.” An audience member then gave Manilow the original poster from that night and Manilow laughed, “It cost five dollars to get in.”
It’s been many years and numerous career milestones for Manilow since that night long ago in Nashville. Manilow has never been afraid to take chances with his music and is up for two Grammys this year for his traditional pop album, Manilow Sings Sinatra. After the taping of Manilow Country, he told the press gathered backstage how amazed he was at the incredible talent of the artists who participated and said, “I want to do a whole album, a whole tour!”