Believe it or not, without much fanfare, Mandy Barnett has released an album, I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson, marketed primarily as a point-of-purchase impulse item through a chain of mini-marts. For those who don’t follow country music, Gibson came up around the same time as George Jones. In a period whenNashville hits were penned mostly by an assembly line of hired-gun songwriters, Gibson distinguished himself by performing his own material. Several of his songs have become standards; other singers’ covers (notably Conway Twitty’s version of I Can’t Stop Loving You) have often overshadowed his own recordings. Gibson’s best songs have an angst-ridden quality, and as a singer, he comes across as something of a gentle, vulnerable soul.
Mandy Barnett? OK, say what you want about New Nashville, how it’s all just putrid pop, that it’s about as country as One Direction and full of annoying product placements. But anybody who disses Barnett forgets that it was her starring role as a teenager in a Patsy Cline revue that jumpstarted her career. She knows her classics, which makes it less of a surprise that she’s put her heart and soul into this one. Likewise, the all-star, veteran band behind her, with Hargus “Pig” Robbins’s terse, thoughtful piano, Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and Andy Reiss’ electric and acoustic guitar along with a string section that gives most of these tracks a plaintively lush early 70s Nashville feel.
You wouldn’t think from Reiss’ dirty rock guitar on the intro that the album’s opening track, (Yes) I’m Hurting would fly back to that era on the wings of the strings, but it does – and it’s over really fast. Barnett bends her way through the blue notes with a grim knowingness, which she does with even more wrenching angst on an absolutely knockout, deftly orchestrated version of Too Soon to Know.
Look Who’s Blue starts out with more than a hint of southwestern gothic, then switches to a vintage honkytonk guitar arrangement. Sweet Dreams also gets reinvented, this one with Tex-Mex overtones, as Barnett goes all out with the Patsy phrasing – she really goes deep into it and dredges up all the bitterness.
Just One Time plays up the Spanish tinge in the tune, with Barnett gamely channeling a Roy Orbison wariness. With its Alison Krauss cameo, Blue Blue Day goes back to a wintry, orchestrated early 70s Nashville ambience. Oh Lonesome Me has been done to death by a million singers, but this version transforms it into jaunty western swing.
Oh Such a Stranger is one of Gibson’s best songs, and the version here is the album’s most Lynchian track, fueled by the longing in Barnett’s delivery in tandem with Robbins’ gospel-tinged piano. Barnett takes it up another notch over the distant gospel choir (is that the Jordanaires?) on Far Far Away, a surreal but strangely successful blend of Elvis P. balladry and Tex-Mex. Lonesome Number One keeps the gospel choir, switching out the Spanish guitar for pedal steel. Barnett ends the album with a slow, restrained yet vividly wounded take of Legend in My Time. The only dud here is – big surprise – I Can’t Stop Loving You. Barnett and the band really try to redeem this one, but ultimately it’s a song that needs to be permanently retired. Strange as this might seem to say, the album ranks among the best stuff Barnett’s ever done. Now – where can you hear this unexpected treat? Soundcloud? Nope. Spotify? Not there, either. There are a few tracks up at youtube, however – click the links in the song titles above.