Country Music Hall of Fame and Grammy winner Barbara Mandrell retired from music more than two decades ago, but the Grand Ole Opry still feels like home.
Mandrell, 73, made a rare public appearance at the Opry on Saturday night to celebrate her 50th anniversary as an Opry member.
“This is our home again,” Mandrell told The Associated Press in a backstage interview at the Opry House ahead of the long-running radio and television show. “50 years. Not everyone gets that blessing.”
Born in Texas and raised in California, Mandrell was only 23 years old when she became a member in July 1972. But by the time she got to Nashville, she was already a seasoned entertainer, having spent her teenage years playing steel guitar and appearing regularly on the California country TV show Town Hall Party.
During her decades-long career, the actress, multi-instrumentalist and singer introduced millions of fans to country music in the ’70s and ’80s, not only through her popular TV show Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, but also through hits like “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed”, “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right)” and “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”.
She became the first country artist to receive the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award for crossing paths with R&B covers and bringing glamor and showmanship to the genre. Her performances were a showcase of her musicianship, whether she was singing along to the rafters, playing pedal steel, banjo or saxophone.
“It’s called show business. You have to show them something,” Mandrell said. “Otherwise they could sit at home and listen to your recordings or listen to you on the radio. You have to give them something to entertain them.”
With her sisters, Louise and Irlene, Mandrell harnessed the power of television to bring country and gospel music to new ears. Her musical guests were a mix of R&B, pop, and country artists.
“So many would say things like, ‘I’ve never heard country music before, but now, boy, I watch it every Saturday night and I love it,'” Mandrell said.
On this Saturday night, Mandrell was still a country music champion. Before the show began, Mandrell watched Carrie Underwood from the side stage as Underwood performed her soundcheck of “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” stopping to give her a hug and say hello to Underwood’s band members.
Underwood said growing up, Mandrell’s voice was always there.
“She’s been such an inspiration to me and so many others who stand on the shoulders of great artists like her,” Underwood told the Opry crowd.
During the Opry show, Mandrell enthusiastically applauded the all-female cast of artists, including CeCe Winans, Linda Davis, and Suzy Bogguss, as they performed their hits.
“I already feel on top of the world. I’m deeply grateful and excited for being such a huge fan of these ladies,” Mandrell said.
From her seat in the middle of the crowd, Mandrell waved and blew kisses to her fans, who snapped photos of the country star.
Mandrell hasn’t played music or sung since her retirement in 1997 — except in church. Her last concert ever was at the Opry House and became a TV special entitled Barbara Mandrell and the Do-Rites: The Last Dance. ”
Dressed smartly in a hot pink pantsuit and surrounded by 50 vases of roses her fans bought, Mandrell said goodbye to the same Opry stage again 25 years later.
“I chose my home for my last gig, and it was this one,” Mandrell said. “God bless you!” she told fans before walking off the stage into the shadows.
Follow Kristin M. Hall at https://twitter.com/kmhall