Princess of Steel
Country barn dance meets Southern California cosmopolitanism on The Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters Show. Airing on NBC from ‘80-82, the variety series starred Barbara Mandrell and her two younger sisters. In six episodes collected on a “Best of” DVD set, the formula perfected by the pint-sized diva proves entertaining today, as it was for over 40 million viewers every Saturday night back then.
Mandrell welcomes superstar guests, ranging from Glen Campbell to Ray Charles to Bob Hope, and alternates comedy segments with performance sequences, always ending with a group gospel medley. She declares her love of country music, then delivers a silky smooth Vegas-style show with the sisters three in long gowns. She walks a fine line between crossover pop songs and traditional numbers, mostly gospel sing-alongs. She means to make country cool while remaining true to the genre.
Born in Texas and raised in Southern California, Mandrell was a child prodigy multi-instrumentalist who made her professional debut on steel guitar at age 11. In an episode that originally aired on 3 January 1981, Mandrell pays homage to her roots with her family. Black and white footage from her playing steel guitar on “Town Hall Party” as a youth gives way to footage from the show with Mandrell playing the same song. In a medley featuring all three sisters playing the songs “St. Louis Blues”, “Beer Barrel Polka”, and “Dueling Banjos”, Barbara displays her prowess on banjo, Louise on fiddle, accordion, and guitar, and Irlene on drums and xylophone.
Other episodes included in the DVD set are heavy on the Barbara ballads, like her first pop crossover hit, “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” and “Standing Room Only”. This focus is sometimes unfortunate, because framing her mostly as a singer does not do justice to her talent as a musician. Her smoky voice allows her to do some very “blue-eyed soul”, but her pipes don’t stand a chance against some real belters in her roster of guest stars, including Dolly Parton, or in comparison to distinctive stylists like Charles, Johnny Cash, or Campbell. Given the early ‘80s context, it isn’t surprising that many of her guests are also part of the country-pop crossover of the time, like Parton, Kenny Rogers, and Alabama.
Another sign of the time is the series’ framing of Mandrell as a “girl singer”. She is self-deprecating but always center stage, the headliner of a show starring women. The boom of women artists in ‘70s country music coincided with the women’s movement, and Mandrell still faced discrimination from radio stations and record labels. Dubbed the “Princess of Steel” and modeling herself in part on Parton, Mandrell was determined to be in charge of her own music and career, and was famously successful at it.
As her sisters are careful to note on the show, Barbara was named Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the year in 1979 and won Entertainer of the Year in ‘80 and 1981. In her ‘90 autobiography, Get to the Heart: My Story, she complains that L.A. and New York entertainment wonks “expect you to be barefoot and ignorant” as a country star, and notes that those kinds of industry insiders “were shocked when our show made it.” She also slams the gender discrimination she actively fought, even though she did not think of herself as a feminist: “I was the least political woman you could imagine. Feminism, women’s liberation, equal rights, they were just words to me. I was too busy working. But some part of it must have sunk in, because when I got to Hollywood… I wanted control.”
Mandrell seizes that control to deliver what she dubs “a new type of show”, namely “country music variety”. Each episode features sketches full of the kind of corn-pone humor popularized by Hee Haw. Many of these bits turn on sisterly teasing. Louise is mocked for being a bad cook or Irlene for wanting to be a doctor (they convince her to take up a “cause” instead). Other gags feature topical issues: the women are distracted by Pacman or Rubik’s Cube when they should be singing. In the series’ premiere episode (18 November 1980), when Barbara welcomes viewers to the new-style country music variety, she laughs, “I’m country music, Louise is country music”, then youngest sister Irlene breaks in to say, “And I’m the variety”, declaring her desire to be “a sex symbol”.
Sometimes the comedy bits are rather too cheesestastic. The life-size Krofft Puppets play music (pretty impressive), but also flirt creakily with Irlene. Rogers trots out to sing “Three Times a Lady” and serenades each of the sisters in turn. They all fight over Bob Hope, who gamely delivers lines like, “I haven’t been smothered with this much Southern charm since I was locked in a phone booth with Dolly Parton.” The Mandrells’ sign-off, “Always be happy as you’ve made us tonight”, is too saccharine, as well.
Still, the comedy sometimes builds the country-cool bridge Mandrell seeks. In an episode from 27 February 1982 guest-starring Cash and June Carter Cash, Mandrell welcomes Mr. Blackwell, who has just named her number one on his “worst dressed list”. She jokes that she had a long discussion with him about it, and he comes out in a fake arm cast. In a bit with Carter Cash, famous for her comedy since her early days with the Carter Family, she and Mandrell sing “Old Susannah”; they joke that Carter Cash’s teeny tiny harmonica comes from a Cracker Jack box, and Mandrell pretends to swallow it by mistake, saying, “I’m sure glad you didn’t bring a piano.”
At another point, Mandrell tries to get Carter Cash away from the Pacman machine to which everyone appears addicted, saying, “The show must go on, it’s a tradition. You of all people must know that.” Carter Cash replies, “Well, Pacman just ate tradition.” With a sense of humor about how country music had been stereotyped as dusty or backward, the Mandrells show offered a fresh version of the genre, trying to make it sophisticated and relevant to younger audiences, while laying firm claim to its musical roots.