At this late date the country music market is firmly partitioned into the mega-country CMT machine, the alt scene, and the old-school road warriors epitomized by Willie, Merle and their few remaining brothers and sisters. Fitting neatly into none of these crowds, Crossville, Tennessee native Mandy Barnett has never quite fulfilled the promise when Rolling Stone designated her sophomore effort, Sire’s I’ve Got A Right to Cry Best Country Album of the Year. Barnett was 23 and producer Owen Bradley was dying when I’ve Got A Right To Cry was recorded, but Barnett had been performing at the Grand Ole Opry for over a decade and was already retro-associated through her teenybop lead role in the smash stage show (and cast recording) Always. . . Patsy Cline.
Barnett didn’t totally disappear after that but she might as well have: occasional soundtrack work, some guest vocals (Sponge-Bob Square Pants?), and she had a victory lap when the Cline stage show was resurrected. But there was a ten-year gap in projects under her own name, and the two that did appear (a Christmas album and a Patsy Cline tribute, as if that link wasn’t already obvious) suggested a visionless talent eking along on the fringes.
So you’d be excused if you had no idea that Barnett released another album in November of last year. And if you did, you’d have trouble getting a physical copy, which is exclusively available through the website of the sadly recidivist (i.e., racist and homophobic) Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. (Digital downloads are available from the usual venues.) Cracker Barrel has some kind of thing going releasing exclusive albums mostly by has-been country artists (although Brad Paisley released an expanded version of Wheelhouse through the site and there’s also an album of Smokey Robinson retreads), which says a lot of Barnett’s place in the country music world these days.
And to top it off, this 2013 release by Barnett lazily goes the tribute album route once again. So you’ve got plenty of reasons to let Barnett’s latest drift by you. Only, I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson is a minor miracle. Don Gibson is the prototype of the soused, under-voiced Nashville songwriter, and while his own recordings are rarely revelatory (2001’s 16-song RCA Country Legends is really all the non-fanatic needs), this uneducated Carolinian was the Sad Poet, a master of the morose slow burner, and his songs are now best known in versions by others—Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, Neil Young, etc. In fact, there’s already been a Don Gibson tribute, Roy Orbison’s sadly forgotten Sings Don Gibson from 1967—could anyone else be better suited for a whole album of Gibson’s pitiful melancholy?
Well, yeah. Because Barnett’s dusky alto is a lush blanket to warm up twelve Don Gibson warhorses, none surprising and several already cover-version classics (although Barnett respects Gibson’s original arrangements of well-worn tunes like “Sweet Dreams” and “Lonesome Number One”). But the revelation of I Can’t Stop Loving You is just as much about an ol' cuss band (which includes Nashville dieties Pig Robbins and Charlie McCoy and an Allison Krauss guest vocal turn) that settles into these songs like an old shoe. And in spite of Gibson’s reputation as the Nick Drake of country music, the band and Barnett occupy a substantial amount of emotional territory—“Blue Blue Day” and “Too Soon To Know” are the torchy downer ballads you’d expect, but McCoy’s harmonica especially lifts “Lonesome” out of the graveyard, "Just One Time" goes mariachi, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is lush life, and the Bakersfield licks of “Look Who’s Blue” whip up a fearsome storm. Guess what? Country music album of the year for Barnett. Again.
Don Gibson’s tunes now are probably better remembered than he is, and it’s worth hearing the way he recorded them. The Orbison tribute is enigmatic and sometimes thrilling. But Barnett’s I Can’t Stop Loving You is where I’ll turn when I want to hear Don Gibson songs all in one place. If only there was room for Mandy Barnett to grow from here. I’m pulling for her but I don’t have my hopes up.
I can thank my two girls for force-feeding me Now That’s What I Call Music 48, which might be all you need to know about pop 2013. I give up, Katy Perry. Let’s air out our annual music shitstorms, Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus. Daft Punk rules. One song by Lana Del Ray, Paramore, and Maroon 5 is about the right number. The CD drags a bit toward the end and the wrong Taylor Swift song appears, but gimme insulin cuz I’m on a sugar high.