20 Questions With Barbara Mandrell

Country Star Discusses Reality TV, Reba McEntire and Retirement

If loving Barbara Mandrell is wrong, then many of today’s top country stars don’t want to be right. The energetic entertainer is being honored on She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool (A Tribute to Barbara Mandrell), a new album featuring famous admirers like Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney, LeAnn Rimes and Brad Paisley. Chatting from her home in Nashville, Mandrell answers these questions from fans about her numerous hobbies, her famous sisters and what she misses the most about performing.

1. How does it feel knowing that a tribute album is being released in recognition of you and your music?

It’s an amazing feeling. I have tried really hard to come up with great descriptive words of how it overwhelms me, but I can’t find the words. A dear friend of mine, Clint Higham — who manages several wonderful artists including Kenny Chesney, my sister Louise, lots and lots of artists — he and his wife have been friends of ours for a lot of years, and it was his idea. He came to me and he says, “There must be a tribute album to you. I feel that just has to happen.” And he asked me how I would feel about it, and I told him. … (laughs) “Hey, I mean … wow!” You know? And so he went to [Sony BMG Nashville chairman] Joe Galante, and Joe took the ball and ran with it. I just feel so blessed.

2. Whose idea was it for Reba to record “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” with Kenny Chesney for the tribute album?

That was one of the very first calls I got. I believe it was from Clint telling me that Reba was going to do “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” and that Kenny Chesney was going to do the part on it that George Jones had done with me. He knew because he knows me so well. He knew how thrilled I would be. That is my signature song.

That song was written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan. She and Dennis wrote it after a visit we had had about my early years as a little grade schooler in California doing live television on a Saturday night and going back to school on Monday morning and being teased about … that hillbilly music. Just things of that nature, little stories. The next thing I knew, they had written for me, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” It’s literally the story of my life, and because it is so special to me, it had to be Reba and Kenny in my heart because she has been my friend so long and he has been my friend for many years. I just adore them both. I love that lick she did on the end of it, too. I’m gonna slap her, I think. (laughs)

3. Who was your biggest inspiration when you started in the business?

By the time I got my first job, I was like a sponge, just soaking up so much greatness that was all around me. Joe Maphis and Rose Lee Maphis gave me a job on their show in Vegas. But at that time, it was happening very fast. I started right away as a regular on this television show in California every Saturday night. Besides those of us that were regulars, there were very special, huge stars there every Saturday night [who were] touring. I mean, you name it. I would go back to Las Vegas when school would allow — summertime, Christmas holidays. Still, I was working with Red Foley, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Dickens and all of them. Because I was a child, they were so wonderful to give me such great advice, so all of them were my inspiration.

But if I were to name one specific person? Norman Hamlett, the bandleader and steel guitarist for Merle Haggard for more than 30 years. He taught me the steel guitar, and I actually started as a musician playing the steel guitar and saxophone on my first job. Then shortly thereafter, I don’t remember who it was, maybe it was Uncle Joe Maphis, I don’t remember, but they said, “Can you sing?” And I said, “Well, OK.”

4. How many instruments can you play?

To be proficient — the steel guitar, the alto saxophone, a Dobro, five-string banjo, bass. Wherever I needed to or wherever I wanted to — guitar, mandolin. But I was most proficient on those other instruments. And after my last show, I sold all of my instruments except my Dobro, which is engraved from my parents, and my steel guitar, which is in the Hall of Fame. But everything else, I sold. I didn’t want the temptation. I did save my picks and my bar. Those are mine forever.

5. So many times I hear a song on the radio and think, “That would have been perfect for Barbara Mandrell.” Is there a song in recent years you’ve heard and thought the same?

Well, when I was working and recording, sure. I thought all the hits should have been mine. (laughs) That’s all I know to say. As my mother would say, “I wish you had two of those and I had one.”

6. How do you feel new females such as Carrie Underwood are representing country today? And are you a fan?

Are you kidding? I think it’s great. It’s so marvelous — and I mean that literally. It’s just marvelous how God gives different talents to different people. In the arts, the world of music, they just keep coming, and they always will. I’m a huge fan of music across the board. I’ve tried to make it common knowledge, but I’m a person that believes that Duke Ellington said it the best when he said, “There are two kinds of music — good and bad.”

The world of country music is at a different place, but I think it is always the same as it has always been. You’re gonna have some that just melt your heart or make you wanna rock and boogie down and dance. And then some that, ho hum, they do nothing for you. But it’s always been that way. There are different tastes, and we are so fortunate that there are a lot of talented people right now in country music and a lot of great writers.

7. How do you feel about all these new reality singing shows like American Idol and the talent they are producing?

I think it’s terrific. I think it’s very needed. I think without those it would be impossible for so many gifted people to have any place to be discovered. I think it’s wonderful.

8. Are there any plans to re-release your MCA albums on CD or Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters on DVD?

I don’t know. I don’t own Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, so I have nothing to say about it, or I don’t know about it. … I think that would be nice if they would be available should someone want to buy them. Albums — I don’t know. Not to my knowledge.

9. Rumor had it a couple years ago that you might do a TV show with Dolly Parton and another country music star much like The Golden Girls. Is this true?

No, that’s the first I’ve heard of it. I adore Dolly Parton, and I loved The Golden Girls. But, no, I’ve never heard of it before.

10. I heard you were possibly going to write another book

No, I’m not. Nope.

11. Is there anything in discussion or development for you to appear in a movie or television show? Would you consider any offers?

It would have to be something. … I’m sure you can think of times that you have felt, “No, I would never do that” or “No, I don’t want to.” And then something would come to you out of left field that never, ever occurred to you, and you go, “Wait a minute.” Right now, answering this question, I’d say “No.” I’m just very happy. I’m just really happy. I don’t do many speaking engagements. However, I am getting ready to go to Louisiana to do a speaking engagement. I always enjoy myself when I do. I’m going to say a few words on the Giants show for CMT for Reba McEntire. Will I enjoy that? Very much. But I’m happy here at home. So, I have no plans.

12. How long did it take you to recover from your car wreck?

I went to work about 18 months after, but my head injury was actually three years in the healing. … I had many broken bones — with my broken femur, and my knee went into the radio. My right ankle, they said, is in recorded medical history. There were only 50 broken ankles like mine. I had five ankle breaks, five breaks down inside my ankle. And 10 orthopedic surgeons met to figure out what to do about my ankle. It was said to me that I could probably never wear heels again, yet the great physician — Jesus — had different ideas because I danced in three inch heels.

I’ve always been in pain with my ankle. It’s just that I made it where, in front of people, I never limped. I never favored the pain. But when I’m around the house, I do favor the pain some. I had surgery on that ankle about a year and a-half ago. And it’s still not good. At least I’ve got that ankle.

13. How’s your husband Ken doing? What’s going on with your kids?

My husband Ken is also retired and yet he, like me, is really busy. We’re very happy and we just became empty-nesters this year. All three of our children are grown. Our youngest, Nathan, is a student at Ole Miss and very happy and doing well. Our daughter Jaime is right now on a job. She is a production assistant for a movie being done.

And our oldest son Matthew just got married to a young lady. Christy Seamans is her married name, but her professional name was Christy Sutherland. She’s a singer-songwriter, and she is doing very, very well in Christian music. Sandi Patty is recording one of her compositions on her next album. Matthew is a chef and the newlyweds got married in my garden this last July. If I do say myself, it was beautiful. Small, very beautiful. They asked me to not only have it in my garden, but they wanted me to do all the flowers in the wedding, the arrangements, the bouquets, the boutonni√®res, the table arrangements, all of it. And so, there’s an old song from country music — when they were pulling out the gate and waving goodbye to us — I was thinking, “Thank God and Greyhound You’re Gone.” (laugh,) The people around me were laughing. I was tired!

14. What are Louise and Irlene doing now? Will you please give us an update?

My sister Louise sold her theater. Her last show there was this past New Year’s Eve and she chose that because our father is not well. Her husband John is ill, and so she wanted to leave everything for this year and be with them. But as of January, she’ll be hitting it again. Meanwhile, her manager Clint Higham has been bringing projects and proposals to her. I just think it’s wonderful she wanted to be with John for this concentrated time and with our daddy, Irby Mandrell. Yesterday, I went to Louise’s, and she and I spent seven hours painting an entertainment center, two night stands and a bed! (laughs) And we had the best visit. And Irlene is — gosh, she’s just never home. She represents several organizations for outdoor shooting sports. She also does a lot of television, fishing and hunting. She is a busy lady, and I am very proud of her.

15. When I was growing up, my Saturday nights included Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters. What were some of your favorite memories from the show?

My favorite memory is working with Louise and Irlene. That’s the only time the three of us have worked together. I loved the guests that we had. It was a very diversified roster. I may have them mixed up from different shows. But, for example, we’d have Conway Twitty and Gladys Knight on the same show. And it means the world to me that we gained a tremendous number of fans for country music. I think each of us, as performers in country music, love our music and love our industry. We want to see it grow. Before cable, we averaged 40 million people a week. I just can’t even imagine. The mail was phenomenal, and I know for a fact that was a tremendous converting of fans to country music. I treasure those memories.

16. Is there a place where fans can still write to you?

I appreciate you saying this. I have a Web site, Barbara-Mandrell.com [with the hyphen], and it’s been recently updated and totally redone. That will have all things on it. It just recently happened within the last week. It has a whole new look, and we’ll keep it updated.

17. What type of architecture did you chose for your home after you sold the log cabin-style house?

It’s grey stone country French style, and I love it. I told my husband, “When you love your home, you have to give it a name.” I told him my name for the home, and he totally agreed, and so it is called Maison d’ Animaux, which means “house of animals” or “home of animals” Our third dog died in December, but we have two dogs, four cats and a cockatoo that we’ve had since she was 4, and she turned 21 in September. In my garden, which is a big garden, I have one part that is my bird garden and every morning, 365 days a year, they get buckets of food — for the birds, for the squirrels, the chipmunks and the turtles in the summer. Our house is perfect to have that title.

18. What other hobbies are you enjoying in addition to gardening?

Which by the way, sometimes I spend 10 hours a day out there in the busy time. Did you know it’s pushing 80 percent of America that gardens? We gardeners are busy. The little things, people call crafts, I guess. I learned mainly through television, but I learned how to do mosaic, where you can buy stones or things of that nature. But also where you bust the tile to decorate pots for flowers or table tops. Lots of different things. Wherever you want it, you can mosaic just about anything. It took me about two weeks to do a big birdbath.

I do faux painting and then I do normal painting, too. When our daughter bought her condominium, I painted for 11 days over at her place. You know why? I work cheap! I’m free! (laughs) No wonder they want me! What else do I do? I just like doing silly girly things. If I wrap a gift, I like to use specials ribbon and hot glue silk flowers and things.

19. Do you think you will ever perform another concert?

No. It was a very prayerful, most important decision, and because God gave me the answer, that made it right. No, I will not do another.

20. What have you missed the most since retiring from performing, and what have you missed the least?

What I’ve missed the least I’ll say first. What I’ve missed the least is traveling. Or let me say it this way: What I’ve missed the least is being gone all the time from home. What I’ve missed the most? I’m going to preface my answer with this: I would say the audience is, but they were not like audiences to me. They were people to me, and I don’t “miss” the people because I see people every time I go grocery shopping, clothes shopping, to the garden nursery or any place. People are so kind to come up and speak and visit with me, so I cannot say I “miss” that. I just feel very fortunate that people are so kind.

What I do miss that I don’t get anymore? You’re going to think I’m crazy, but you want the truth, so here it is. The lights! I miss the spotlights. I don’t mean it figuratively. I mean it literally. I love the feeling of lights. And the reason I know I miss it is because I’m a huge Nashville Predators ice hockey team fan. I love ice hockey. At the game one night, they were slowly panning the audience with the spotlights — very slowly, just to keep our adrenaline up. And as it was coming, I could feel it coming. I was a person that could always feel the light. I knew where my light was. And I knew as that light was coming across where we were sitting, and I could feel it, I just savored it. (laughs) I thought, “Man, I miss that!” I don’t know if that’s the answer you want, but it’s the truth.