Sweetheart of steel: the Barbara Mandrell story

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It was more than 20 years ago when the gifted country singer and musician, Barbara Mandrell stepped away from the spotlight and the world of music-making, and even after the huge success she experienced in the 70s and 80s, she still says she wouldn’t wish to go back. These days Mandrell is devoting herself to raising her family, taking care of her 3 kids and her grandchildren and picking up new hobbies and crafts.

Being a pioneer in her own field, Barbara Mandrell will always be remembered for her contribution to country music. The 67-year-old singer has outlined the way for many female country singers and musician which followed her brave footsteps. She began her career at the very young age of 13, travelling the world and performing with megastars like Johnny Cash, George Jones and Cline. She went on to playing steel-guitar with the family’s band and then took a break from her music career to marry the band’s drummer, Ken Dudney.

Her return to music in 1969 started on a low burner and only really caught fire in the late 70s. Releasing one hit after the other, Barbara managed to turn herself into a self-made legend. The TV show she had with her sister and many of her songs became classics nationwide. She and two of her kids were involved in a fatal car crash in 1984, and even after a year and a half of rehabilitation, she didn’t let it stop her. To this day, Barbara Mandrell has won an unbelievable number of 75 awards and honors in her career, including memberships in the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame. Her music career wasn’t the only thing that bought her these awards and she had also received countless prizes for her breathtaking looks.

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Member of the Country Music Hall of Fame

Years after her last live performance which ended her decades-long career in music, in 2009 Mandrell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Standing next to country stars like Charlie McCoy and Roy Clark, Babara received the award that had officially put a seal on her incredibly successful musical legacy. Barbara is the first woman ever to join Nashville’s Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, which is considered to be the highest honor that a country musician can receive.

For the second time in three years Barbara Mandrell received the honor of being AMC’s “Entertainer of the Year”. The Country Music Association had already picked Barbara the first time in 1979, and then she did it again when she took over the hearts of her listener and her judges in 1981. This made Barbara the first performer ever to receive the award twice, and the only other musician to achieve so is Taylor Swift, more than 30 years later.

“Grand Ole Opry”

Country’s most famous stage, the “Grand Old Opry”, had the honor of Barbara Mandrell joining as one of their team members. The diva has been a member since 1972, nine years into her music career. Since then she performed countless times on their stage, until her retirement in 1997. During her performances there she joined forces with many other famous club members like the lovely Reba McEntire, Roy Acuff, and Minnie Pearl.

“Sleeping Single In a Double Bed”

The song “Sleeping Single In a Double Bed” which was released in August 1978, is the one that initially brought Mandrell to fame and bought her a ticket to the Country Music industry. The song was her first (out of a sequence of 5 more) number one single on Billboard’s music charts, and it stayed on the chart for 1 more weeks. It was the first track from her album “Moods”, which altogether marked the beginning of her career’s breakthrough.

Her son was an alcohol addict

During his years in college, Matt confessed he was suffering from an addiction to alcohol and severe depression. “It started out with a group of friends. ‘Hey, we’ve got a six-pack of beer’ or ‘let’s go chase these girls.'” I dabbled a little bit in drugs, but more than anything it was more drinking.”, he said in a recent interview. When things were starting to get really bad, he committed himself into rehab. Inside, he healed and reconnected with his Christianity. “That was the major turning point in my life to accept that I am a child of God.”

“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”

“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” is probably the singer’s most famous single, and her definite “signature song”. The song was released with her album “Barbara Mandrell Live” in April 1981 and was actually written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan. After just 3 months the song reached number one on U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles. Country musician George Jones which was featured in the song never received credit for his performance on the record charts.

Chirstmas day baby

There must be something magical about being born on Christmas day, and perhaps this might be one of Barbara Mandrell’s secrets for her irresistible charm and inexhaustible talent. It was the morning of December 25th, 1948, when mother Mary Ellen and father Irby Matthew Mandrell had their very first daughter born – Barbara Ann. She grew up in the same house in Texas, in a family of strict Christians with her 2 younger sisters.

Child prodigy

Barbara’s talent started to show at a very young age, and it was not something you could simply ignore. She was only nine when she already mastered playing the steel guitar and the accordion. “When I was a little girl in Texas, no more than four or five, I used to pretend I was Loretta Young,” she recalls, “I would make poor Aunt Thelma sit and watch me do my big entrance. I’d find one of Momma’s dresses and I’d put on a show and sing. And Aunt Thelma would sit patiently through it.”

Her father

Mandrell’s father was quite an interesting figure himself. He served in the US Navy during World War II, and after the war continued to serve his country from the lines of Texas’ police department. Born in Arkansas, Irby Mandrell also had a modest music career of his own back there in his 20s. He became a traveling musician and met Mary, his wife and mother of his children in Illinois. After they got married, he established Oceanside Music Supply in California.

My manager, dad

Irby Mandrell raised his daughter to read and write music from a young age. In a certain way, he was the one who introduced her to Country music and guided her in her first steps in the field. After Barbara and her dad played in the family’s band for a while, Barbara took a break from music for several years. Once she decided to come back, it was only natural for her dad to be her manager. “He was not only my manager,” Barbara said, “he was my daddy, so he had my best interests at heart. . . . He wanted me to know the details of the business end, because it was show business, not just show.”

Her mom was a musician too

Just like her husband, Barbara’s mother Mary Ellen Mandrell was also into making country music. She was a proficient and talented bass player, and she used to perform with the family’s band during their tours. Mary Ellen was also a homemaker and was the one who stayed home most of the time with her children. She grew up as part of a large family, and they’ve all lived in Illinois, in rural Wayne County.

The family’s band

Until she was 5, Mandrell was the only child in the house. It was only in 1954 when her younger sister Thelma Louise Mandrell was born. Less than two years later, Ellen Irlene Mandrell joined the two. The three sisters all grew up with a developed musical sense, and by the time Mandrell was 14, the whole family was traveling and performing together throughout America and Asia. Mandrell’s father was the guitarist and lead singer, her mother player Bass, Barbara played pedal steel guitar and saxophone, and her sisters sang back vocals.

Husband Ken Dudney

During her time touring with the family’s band, Mandrell fell in love with the band’s drummer, Ken Dudney. Since Mandrell was only fourteen at the time, and Dubney was 21, their families opposed the relationship between the two, and made many attempts to keep them away from each other. Their relationship was put on hold when Dudney was sent overseas to fight in Vietnam, but when he came back, the couple reunited, and the two finally married in 1967.

Lifetime Achievement Award winner

In 2005, the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) chose to award Barbara Mandrell the “Lifetime Achievement Award” for her musical legacy. The award, which is usually given as the “Woman of the Year” award, typically goes to women who have done great impact in their field and changed it for the better for women. Sandi Dutton, who is the ALA president said about her “She’s always had a place for God and country in all that she does and has always been a firm supporter of our men and women in uniform.”

“She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”

In 2006 many country artists gathered to create a tribute album for the one and only Mandrell. Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney, two of the singer’s closest friends, recorded their own version of her signature song “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” for the album. In an interview Mandrell said, “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.”

She plays 7 instruments

“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” she explained in a recent interview. Mandrell also picked instruments that were not considered suitable for women at the time “There was only one woman in country music who played steel guitar, and the saxophone always had a reputation as a kind of man’s instrument” she said, “Later I picked up the Dobro and the banjo, two other instruments very few women played.”

She’s a Carrie Underwood fan

Even though her music might be considered by some as old news, Mandrell herself is quite informed if you ask us. When she was asked in a recent interview about her opinion on the new generation of country singers, she didn’t blink when she said “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.” when asked specifically about Carrie, she replied she’s “just too gorgeous for words and her voice is too gorgeous for words”

She watches American Idol

So we already know Mandrell is a fan of season 4’s winner, country singer Carrie Underwood, but Barbara is actually quite an advocate of the show Americal Idol. She recently talked about it “I think it’s terrific. I think it’s very needed. Without those, it would be impossible for so many gifted people to have any place to be discovered. I think it’s wonderful.” Well, when you have country stars as good looking as Mr. Keith Urban to look at, we can’t really blame her.

She wrote a book

Besides being a super talented country singer and musician, Barbara is also a writer! In September 1991, Mandrell had published her first autobiography called “Get to the Heart: My Story”. The book appeared on the Best Seller List of the New York Times just 4 days after it was released, and lasted there for half a year. The book became a huge success, as many people were fascinated by Barbara’s stories about her family’s support throughout her career and the recovery from the car crash she experienced.

Her son Matthew Dudney

Matthew Dudney (today 34), is the singer’s oldest son, and a chef in his profession. In 2006, Matt got married to Christy Sutherland, a singer-songwriter who’s building herself a career of her own in Christian music. The couple got married in a small, modest July wedding at Barbara’s garden. Barabara being a not-so-bad gardener had complied with the couples’ request that she’d make their wedding’s table arrangements and the bride’s bouquet – all by herself.

She lives in the “House of Animals”

Another sweet fact about our lovely Barbara is that she’s a huge animal lover. How huge? She named her own house “home of animals”. Well, the original name she chose is actually in French, “Maison d’ Animaux”, and she called it that way over the many pets and furry friends living with her. “We have two dogs, four cats, and a cockatoo”. she tells, “In my garden, I have one part that is my bird garden — for the birds, for the squirrels, the chipmunks, and the turtles in the summer.”

She’s also an artist

We’ve already learned that Barbara is quite a nifty garden, but did you know that’s she is pretty good at some other crafts too? She said she recently learned from TV how to do mosaics, which are little stones that you arrange into a colorful picture or surface. “It took me about two weeks to do a big birdbath.” she laughed. Mandrell also said that when her daughter bought her apartment, she went over and helped her paint it for 11 days.

Don’t expect a comeback

Some of us still carry a small hope in our hearts that this country queen will someday come back to the stage for one more show. If you feel that way, we’re sorry to ruin your hopes, but according to Barbara, that’s very unlikely to happen. When asked if she thinks she’ll ever do another concert, she answered “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.”

Jaime Dudney

Barbara’s oldest daughter Jaime Dudney, was born February 23, 1976. Born Jaime Nicole Mandrell Dudney, she made several attempts of becoming an actress before turning to management. In her youth, she appeared in some of the family’s movies, and she had also won Miss Teen Tennessee competition, in 1995. Today, she is very much into charity work, and her main occupation is Director of Hospitality at their old house, which turned into a tourist attraction once it was sold.

“Fontanel Mansion”

Barbara’s old residence was so impressive and grand, that when she sold it after 14 years it became an attraction for tourists from all over the world, with a hotel and restaurant on site. The mansion is made almost entirely out of wood logs and spreads over 186 acres of land. The house’s name “Fontanel Mansion” comes from the soft spot babies have on their heads since Mandrell wanted the place to be a soft spot for her family to come together.

“Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters”

Barbara and her two talented sisters Irlene and Louise have hosted together a variety show titled “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters”. The show aired on NBC, and consisted of comedy sketches, dancing and singing. Many country legends came to visit during the three years that the show aired. Some of the big names to appear on the show were country’s queen Dolly Parton, John Schneider and Ray Stevens. On average, the show managed to draw around forty million viewers every week.

She’s worth 45 million dollars

Our lovely and gifted star did everything she could to turn the lemons she was handed into the best lemonade in the country (you get the metaphor). So for her incredible achievements – hats off. From a modest Christian family in Houston, Texas, she built herself to be a successful and famous entertainer. She grew her net worth, and today it is estimated to be around forty-five million dollars, and we can’t say she didn’t earn in righteously.

She almost lost her third child

Mandrell’s third son Nathan came almost 10 years after the birth of her daughter Jaime. Born Nathaniel Mandrell Dudney in 1985, he is now the VP of Sales and Marketing at Dynamic Research Technologies. Barbara said that during her pregnancy she almost had a miscarriage, and couldn’t get an ultrasound until the next morning. “We had to go all through the night thinking that our baby was dead.” she said. “When God showed him to us, he wasn’t dead, he was sucking his thumb. He is a miracle.”

She won dozens of awards

For her amazing busy career, Barbara Mandrell had won many awards and honors. 75, to be exact. During the peak years of her career in the 70s & 80s the lady won an award or a title almost every year. Since then and to this very day, the singer keeps getting mentioned and awarded every couple of years. It is clear that no one will forget her great contribution to country music. Apart from music awards, this gorgeous blonde has won other remarks, like People’s Magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful” list.

Country’s golden girls

Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton were some of the most influential female singers during the ate 70s as their music was groundbreaking not only in the country genre but outside of it.  The two didn’t let a little competition get in the way of their friendship and they managed to do well each in her own career path. Dolly was on the top of her game with her hit song, 9 to 5 While Barbara had just joined her sisters in the family’s musical show, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters.

More than a simple friendship

The two, who were extremely successful in their careers, had an unusual bond that was not obvious at the time when female artists had to work harder to try and establish a name for themselves, let alone reach superstardom. However, despite the clear secret competition, after all they were also close in age (Dolly is only three years older than Barbara), they always had the best things to say about each other. When Parton was a guest on Barbara’s show, she told her fellow star: ‘I think you’ve got just about everything a girl could want.’

Success didn’t change them

Both Barbara and Dolly were hitting red carpets left and right and they seemed liked they had it all – the look, the talent and the smile. In one interview, Parton was candid about how she believes success didn’t change her and her fellow country artist. She said: ‘we’re still the same simple girls we always were…’. They both agreed that it’s really about the person you are inside and not the type of  facade you put on.

Dolly’s unsuccessful stint

The Mandrell Sisters show which went on air in 1980 on NBC was a huge success. Anyone who was a name in the music industry was a guest on the show from June Carter to Johnny Cash. Dolly, who was very close to the eldest Mandrell sister, thought it would be a good idea to try and imitate that success by putting up a show of her own in that same genre. Unfortunately for the star, the show which aired on ABC was not successful, to say the least.

One of few

Barbara Mandrell is one of few female artists to win a Country Music Association Award, in fact she has won the respected honor a few times throughout her career. When she was asked whether she thinks women have a harder time becoming a household name in the music industry, her answer was: ‘Yes, I do…Before that, it was a standing joke that it was more like we had “pretty little girl singers” opening for a male headliner. You work so hard for the staging, choreography — I was the only one who danced with backup dancers. ‘

Barbara and Ken

Barbara and her husband, Ken Dudney have been married for five decades, which is a lifetime when it comes to couples in the entertainment industry. On how they met, Barbara once said in an interview: ‘My daddy hired Ken Dudney to be our drummer. It was my daddy’s band, called the Mandrell Family Band. I was 14. He was smart enough to be kind and polite but cool. When I fell, I fell hard. We went together all through high school.’

He proposed more than once

Commitment is in Barbara Mandrell’s blood as she has remained committed not only to her long-life partner, but to her music as well. It turns out that Ken had proposed many times to the country singer as they were so in love. The only obstacle was that she was way to young and she had to finish high school before they could get married. Barbara does admit though that it wasn’t always so smooth and they have had their fair share of arguments and fights.

The 9/11 connection

In a creepy turn of events, September 11, 1984 is a date Barbara will never forget. That was the she was involved in a fatal car crash that changed her life forever. She was driving her car with her oldest children inside when they were hit basically head-on by another car. The doctors couldn’t believe how they came out alive from the accident. The driver of the other car was killed. The accident left a huge mark on Barbara’s life, not only physically but mentally and emotionally.

How it effected her

After the horrible and traumatic accident, Barbara claims that the incident had changed her entirely to the point that she almost became bipolar: ‘I would refer to myself in the third person: ‘That was her’ or ‘She did that’ or ‘You should have asked her. I can’t do that.” The singer went through unbelievable pain and had a long recovery process. She was severely injured in her brain which left her confused and bound to have bouts of rage. Her family’s support helped her get through it all.

Buckle up

After Barbara managed to recover from the horrible accident, she decided she wanted to teach others from her past mistakes. In 1987 she was part of a public service announcement which called to wear seat belts. At the time, it wasn’t mandatory and people were’t aware enough of the consequences of not wearing a seat belt. She said that she and her children were not seat belt users, but minutes before the crash they put them on, which pretty much saved their lives.


At the time of the accident, Barbara and her husband Ken had two children, Matthew and Jaime. The mom of two didn’t know if she was ready for another baby: ‘When we went back home, I went to see my doctor because I had shared with Ken, ‘I can’t even take care of myself. I can’t eat and I can’t walk. How could I take care of a baby? We better go back and visit the doctor…‘ So I went back and he said,’It’s either one of two things. You are either pregnant, or you have a tumor.’

A miracle

When Barbara was waiting anxiously for the results, she couldn’t believe what the doctor was telling her: ‘It is positive on both’, that’s what the he said. She ended up having a cesarean section with all three of her children, however, her youngest one, Nathan, was the only one she was in risk of a miscarriage with. Barbara recalls: “We prayed and prayed in that hospital, because we couldn’t get ultrasound until the next morning. We had to go all through the night thinking that our baby was dead. When God showed him to us, he wasn’t dead, he was sucking his thumb. God had him safe and sound. He is a miracle.”

The film version

Barbara Mandrell’s special life story was taken to the big screen. In 1997, a film based on her personal autobiography was released under the same name as the book: Get to the Heart: My Story. Many big stars appeared in the film, including Barbara herself. From Lindsey Haun to Dolly Parton and Maureen McCormick, they all were in this CBS project. The storyline is very true to the same storyline Barbara had experienced in her personal life. From falling in love with her future husband at the age of 14 to her horrible car accident.

How it effected her

Linsey Haun played the teenage version of Barbara who falls in love with Ken and Maureen McCormick played the older version of the country superstar when she is already married and settled down. By the film alone, we can get a sense of the rocky road Barbara had to walk down to get to where she is today. She managed to bounce back after everything she has gone through until her final retirement in 1997.

What happened to Louise

Louise, the middle sister of the Mandrell sisters, was always thought to be overshadowed by her older sister’s success. She had a couple of hits and singles of her own, but never gained as much success as her sister did. Louise has actually done pretty well for herself and up until recent years she continued performing. her last performance was before Christmas of 2011 at the Gaylord Opryland.