More than any other performer, Barbara Mandrell is the artist responsible for sparking my interest in country music. Even before there were any local country music radio stations in my area, her weekly TV series was my main source of keeping abreast of what was going on in the world of country music. This was in the early 80s, when she’d just become the first artist to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award a second time. Her contributions to country music were significant, but her catalog has been criminally neglected. Fortunately, that grievance is starting to be addressed. With the reissue of This Time I Almost Made It, courtesy of Real Gone Music, all of Barbara’s solo albums for Columbia are now available on CD.
Barbara was signed to Columbia in 1969 by Billy Sherrill and remained with the label until 1975. During that time, she only released three solo albums, plus a duets album with David Houston. Most major country acts released three albums a year in those days, but like we often see today, the label was waiting for some radio hits before committing to album releases. Her debut album Treat Him Right, was released in 1971 and was a lackluster seller. 1973’s The Midnight Oil reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, buoyed by the success of the title track which reached #7 in Billboard and #1 in Cashbox, and “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home”, which was Barbara’s first Top 10 hit. By the time This Time I Almost Made It was released in 1974, the momentum she had gained seemed to have been lost again; it only reached #41 on the albums chart. By that time, Barbara might have already initiated talks to negotiate her release from her Columbia contract. If so, the label obviously would have had little interest in promoting her records. At any rate, the quality of the material does not seem to have been the issue.
The title track was written by Sherrill when he realized that they didn’t have enough songs for an album. Though in some respects it may have been an afterthought, it is my favorite track on the album. It’s a beautiful ballad, not particularly country in arrangement but the production is tastefully restrained. It was released as a single in advance of the album, as a follow-up to “The Midnight Oil”, but it charted outside the Top 10 at #12. The second single was “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home”, another easy-listening style ballad, although it is a little more country thanks to the inclusion of some steel guitar. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one, but I like it a lot. The background vocals give it a slightly dated feel, though they are a lot less intrusive than many records of the era. This one stalled at #39 and was Barbara’s final single for Columbia.
Barbara is well known for making country versions of R&B songs, occasionally delving too far into R&B territory for my taste in later years but her take on “You’re All I Need to Get By”, which has been a 1968 R&B hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, is quite good. She also turned in good performances on some pop songs of the day: “Keep On Singing”, which had been a hit for Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees’ “Words”, and The Beatles’ “Something”, which closes out the original album. She also covered her country colleagues Merle Haggard (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and Charlie Rich (“A Very Special Love Song”).
This CD would be worth buying for the original album alone, but Real Gone Music has included almost another album’s worth of bonus tracks. There are nine in total, seven of which have never been released before. First up is the very country “I Hope You Love Me”, which was recorded during Barbara’s first session with Columbia in 1969. Written by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it was included on Tammy’s 1970 album The Ways To Love a Man under the title “I Know”. “You Can Always Come Back”, also recorded in 1969 is a cover of a Curly Putman hit. “Coming Home Solider” had been a 1966 pop hit for Bobby Vinton.
Though the album’s liner notes refer to Barbara’s version as “dramatic”, I found it a bit plodding and it’s my least favorite track on the disc. Although a bit tame, her reading of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” is much better. It was written by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, who had hired Barbara for a two-week stint in Las Vegas when she was only eleven years old. It’s proof positive that despite her reputation for interpreting pop and R&B material, she was just as adept at tackling traditional country. Ditto for “You Took Him Off My Hands”, a Wynn Stewart/Harlan Howard/Skeets McDonald song that had previously been recorded by Patsy Cline.
Though not one a landmark album in the Mandrell discography, This Time I Almost Made It provides an interesting opportunity to trace Barbara’s development as an artist, and the bonus material is a real treat for her fans. After leaving Columbia, Barbara signed with ABC/Dot, which was later absorbed by MCA. That era of her career, despite being the years of her greatest commercial success, is still largely unavailable on CD aside from a few hits compilations. Hopefully the sales of This Time I Almost Made It will be good enough to entice Universal to finally allowing some of Barbara’s most commercially important recordings a chance to once again see the light of day.