Yes, Mandy Barnett can sing just like Patsy Cline. That much is immediately clear when she assumes the starring role in Always ... Patsy Cline. The enduring musical portrays the country legend's unique friendship with one of her earliest fans, Louise Seger. Barnett and actress Tere Myers, who plays Louise, originated the roles in the musical's first production at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in 1994.
At the time, Barnett was just 18 and won the role after auditioning in a shopping mall. She's reprised the role numerous times since then, including its current run at the Ryman through July 24. She also released her first studio album of Cline's classics, Sweet Dreams, in May.
A Tennessee native, Barnett chatted with CMT.com in a dressing room at the Ryman to talk about her new music, the evolution of her role in the show and her love for the Grand Ole Opry.
CMT: How would you describe a typical day in the studio while making this record?
Barnett: We started early. We pretty well cut everything at once, kind of like they did in the old days. That's usually how I record anyway or the way I like to record. My first couple of takes are usually my best. I tend to kind of go downhill after that. (laughs) But it was all fun, a lot of great musicians and a lot of good friends.
What was your first impression of the script for Always ... Patsy Cline?
For me, all I had to do was make sure that I was standing in the right place and sing her songs. Now I have a little more responsibility, as far as walking, and I have a few speaking parts here and there. Back then there was nothing. I mean, I might have said a couple of things during the Esquire Ballroom scene, but that was about it, so there wasn't much to do.
I like to think of the Ryman as one of the stars of the show.
What does that stage bring to the production?
It brings a lot of authenticity, just being where Patsy performed. When I say, "Welcome to the Grand Ole Opry," I mean, this was the Grand Ole Opry for many years. And just the history that [Always... Patsy Cline] has with this place. It was the first real show after it was renovated. For six months, this was it. When we first started, they were still painting the walls. ... They were working right up to the last minute. Trisha Yearwood got married here [in 1994 to now ex-husband Robert Reynolds of the Mavericks], and there was some kind of bluegrass show in here. Other than that, Always ... Patsy Cline was it for a while.
I think this show could have been really tacky in the wrong hands. What it is about the production that keeps it from going into that melodrama?
I can't say that it hasn't gone that way at times. I think we've been very careful to not get melodramatic. I think Tere Myers is really good about balancing being goofy with showing Louise's sense of humanity and who she was as a person. If she was really that goofy and cheesy, Patsy Cline wouldn't have gone home with her to begin with. (laughs) I think it's a good balance between entertaining the folks and then letting them see just how hurt Louise was when Patsy was killed and what their friendship meant to her.
Among all the songs in Patsy Cline's catalog, what makes "Always" so special?
It was written by Irving Berlin. Patsy recorded quite a few songs to have had such a short career, but Patsy could've been a great pop singer like Rosemary Clooney or Kay Starr or any of those types of singers. "Always" is just a very beautifully-written song. She sings it beautifully, and she really shows that she could've been a big crossover singer.
I've always liked "I Fall to Pieces" because it starts low and gradually rises to the big notes. How important is that dynamic to capturing that classic country sound? People talk about the Nashville Sound production, but I think that vocal range is part of it, too.
Yeah, it is. It's kind of like a ballad in a shuffle. For singers like Patsy, I'm sure she enjoyed having room to stretch out and sing. ... A lot of times singers like her, they're gonna be more partial to ballads because they're more fun to sing and you can get more out of them. So I'm sure that it gave her room to be able to stretch out a little bit.
Does that apply to you, too?
Yeah, it does. I've always had trouble picking out up-tempo songs. They're the hardest to find that aren't just completely goofy or not melodically challenging.
You've sung on the Opry countless times. Why is it important to keep taking those calls?
I've always wanted to sing on the Opry. When I was a little kid, I used to go with [family friend and Opry dance troupe leader] Melvin Sloan to the backstage and I met Grant Turner and Grandpa Jones and Roy Acuff and Dottie West. I got to spend quite a bit of time back there. I always wanted to be a part of the show, and it's always been a dream.
When this run ends, what's next for you?
I'm going to probably start recording. We're trying to figure out what I'm going to do next. My Christmas record's coming out again on Rounder. [It was first available in Cracker Barrel Stores in 2010.] I'm just going to keep on keeping on. I'm going to do some performing arts centers -- and I'm sure playing the Opry.