For whatever reason, nostalgia for Barbara Mandrell‘s music seems minimal in comparison to the fame she earned as a recording artist and variety television show host. Nowadays, the common narrative on her peak commercial years (1977-1986) takes us from the celebrity appeal of Kenny Rogers to Randy Travis‘ role in a classic country revival. At best, Mandrell, a true country music lifer with her own pop success and old-school credibility, gets treated like a side note despite a varied, colorful and successful career.
Born on Dec. 25, 1948, in Houston, Texas, Mandrell was raised around country music. By a young age, her dad had taught her to play lap steel, banjo, saxophone, accordion, bass and mandolin. Eleven-year-old Mandrell earned the nickname “Princess of the Steel” and began touring with the likes of Joe Maphis and Patsy Cline.
At age 14, the Mandrell Family Band formed, featuring Barbara, her parents and sisters Louise and Irlene. The band’s drummer, Ken Dudney, became Mandrell’s husband in 1967. In a business where divorce isn’t limited to song lyrics, Mandrell and Dudney remain married to this day.
Mandrell launched her solo career at age 21, while Dudney was away with the Navy. A working relationship with Tammy Wynette and George Jones’ producer Billy Sherrill slowly but surely netted chart success. Eventually, Mandrell matched the widespread success of Conway Twitty, the Oak Ridge Boys and other contemporaries. In 1980 and 1981, she became the first artist named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in successive years.
The awards and hits kept coming as Mandrell juggled recording and touring commitments with NBC’s prime-time variety show Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (1980-’82), but circumstances slowed Mandrell’s momentum into the 1980s. First, voice problems cut short her television show; then, in 1984, a car wreck briefly separated her from the stage and studio. Mandrell bounced back from both setbacks, however, and continued to cut quality music and thrill live audiences until her 1997 retirement.
With all of that in mind, check out these five select cuts before deciding for yourself if Mandrell deserves way more credit for keeping country cool.