Music executives love to make tribute albums. There seems to be one in the works or one hitting store shelves every other month. Some artists are worthy: some are not. Barbara Mandrell fits into the former category. Mandrell, in a career that spanned nearly four decades, made a lasting contribution to, not only country music, but pop music as well.
Mandrell walked away from performing in 1997. After one final concert at the Grand Ole Opry House, the ravishing singer rode off into the sunset. She may be retired, but the music lives on. She Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool: A Tribute To Barbara Mandrell reminds listeners why Ms. Mandrell is the only female singer to ever win the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the year award twice (1980 and 1981). A stellar cast of characters pay homage here, reliving some of the singer's most cherished songs.
From country to gospel Mandrell did it all, and this collection gives listeners a taste of that musical diversity. From LeAnn Rimes' sweltering version of the R&B tinted "If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want To Be Right," to Dierks Bentley's thunderous reading of "Fast Lanes And Country Roads," She Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool is a musical journey into the past. Newcomer Blaine Larson sketches out a rollicking rendition of "I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today." Larson does his best George Strait impersonation on the swinging cut.
Reba McEntire, who at one time was competing with Mandrell on the charts, offers a smashing interpretation of "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool." That familiar guitar riff, matched to McEntire's taffy smooth voice, makes the song absolutely irresistible. Kenny Chesney helps out briefly on the track, but it's McEntire who glistens like the sun on the morning dew. Redneck woman Gretchen Wilson was the perfect choice for the dejected cheating song "The Midnight Oil." Subtle piano and steel guitar shading emphasize Wilson's aching vocal.
Lorrie Morgan, in one of her more subdued performances, stretches her silky voice over "That's What Friends Are For." Morgan is striking as she plays the role of a woman who loses her husband to her best friend. Sara Evans struts her sexy stuff all over the throbbing "Crackers," while CeCe Winans adds some soul to the spiritual "He Set My Life To Music." The biggest surprise on the album, though, is Willie Nelson's and Shelby Lynne's exquisite cover of "This Time I Almost Made It." Nelson and Lynne steal the show with their dusty throated delivery.
A lot of tribute albums are bloated affairs with self-indulged versions of an artist's songs. Not this one. She Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool: A Tribute To Barbara Mandrell will make people long for the good ole days.
By Todd Sterling