As a child, Nashville singer Mandy Barnett absorbed her grandmother's vintage record collection, soaking up singers like Perry Como, Burl Ives, Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee. Now, those early musical memories lend a warm-and-fuzzy feeling to Barnett's latest album, Winter Wonderland, a throwback to the Nashville Sound era of the 1960s.
"I think people want to hear familiar arrangements," she says. "You can do things differently for the sake of doing things differently and kill the whole vibe of the song. I think part of what makes some of these songs great is the original arrangements."
With lush orchestration and a pleasant sampling of holiday classics, Winter Wonderland calls to mind a Christmas record Patsy Cline would have made. That's an easy comparison because Barnett is most famous for playing the title role in Always ... Patsy Cline at the Ryman Auditorium, a role she landed in 1994. Profoundly inspired by Cline's signature vocal style, Barnett's spunky alto bounces up and down the musical scale on "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays," with backup singers that practically invite you to jump right in.
"I wasn't really sure how it was going to turn out. It just seemed like a natural fit to go western swing with it," Barnett says about the song. "Of course, my model was Perry Como, and that's not western swing at all, but that's how it just kind of turned out. On some of them we took more liberties to change up the arrangements, but on a song like 'Jingle Bell Rock,' you don't want to change it. That's how it's supposed to be. It's supposed to have that guitar intro, bells and the whole nine yards."
Splitting her time between the vocal booth and the producer's chair, Barnett and the musicians quickly captured the holiday spirit on chestnuts like "Holly Jolly Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "White Christmas." She also offers an upbeat "Here Comes Santa Claus," a lively "Marshmallow World" and the flirtatious "All I Want for Christmas Is You." To close the album, her rich, expressive voice snuggles up to the enduring chestnut, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
"A lot of people think about Judy Garland because her version is so sad and kind of bittersweet," Barnett says of the latter song. "I didn't necessarily want mine to be sad because I wanted this record to really be upbeat. But when you hear that song, you can't help but reminisce and think about times gone by, times with your grandparents and your friends and how things change. The song is bittersweet no matter how you deliver it, but I definitely wanted it to be a little bit more on the positive side."
Barnett grew up in Crossville, Tenn., about 110 miles east of Nashville. She signed her first record deal with MCA Nashville at 12 years old, then followed label executive Jimmy Bowen to Capitol when she was about 14. She moved to Nashville after high school, but got dropped from Capitol's roster about six months later. But less than a year after that, she landed Always ... Patsy Cline. In the late 1990s, she made two country-inspired albums for two different labels but has only occasionally appeared on soundtracks until Winter Wonderland, which she recorded in Nashville over the summer and licensed to Cracker Barrel stores.
"I'm not opposed to a record deal, but there was something very nice about being able to do it on your own and figure things out," says Barnett, now 35. "Of course everything's changing. I don't know what the right way is, but for right now this was the right thing to do."
She also enlisted several longtime friends to play on the record -- and they just happen to be some of the city's most distinguished pickers, such as famed guitarist Harold Bradley, steel guitar legend Lloyd Green and country fiddle hero Hoot Hester.
"I've worked with a lot of them so much over the last 10 or 15 years, so it was very easy for me to communicate with all of those guys because I'm comfortable with them," she says. "I think they brought their heart and soul to the project. They all knew that I hadn't had a record out in a while, so they wanted to do the best that they could do."
Asked about her goals in the producer's role, she candidly answers, "Well, being under-budget is probably the top thing. But, you know, you just kind of wait for that magical moment. But you have to hire people you can get that out of. I felt like with all the guys that I worked with, I'd seen it happen a million times. There's just no reason why it couldn't come together quickly. I needed people who could perform quickly because, you know, this record didn't cost a million dollars."
As for producing future projects, Barnett notes, "It's something that I wouldn't mind doing, but I'm not opposed to working with other people, too. I think it can be a great thing sometimes, and then other times I'd like to see what someone else can bring to the table that I haven't thought about." With a knowing grin, she adds, "Because I'm the typical female artist, I like a little bit of coddling and hearing, 'It'll be OK.'"
A regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry, Barnett says she's working on new music and booking some shows in Nashville and beyond. She's also signed on for a six-week run of Always ... Patsy Cline at the Ryman this summer.
Asked what she hopes fans will take away from her live performances, she wryly replies, "That they'll become a lifelong fan and buy my record." Turning only slightly more serious, she adds, "I'm just trying to grab them one by one -- that's what it's all about. I'm doing the cult following sort of thing. I'm not a mainstream country artist, so basically that's what it's about -- each person at that show and gathering as many fans as I can."