By Marilyn Lester

A fresh and noteworthy release, A Nashville Songbook, represents the Melody Place label debut of Mandy Barnett, a Nashville-based singer-actress who’s achieved a well-deserved level of popularity in the Music City. Barnett was the original star of the musical Always… Patsy Cline at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, and dipped her toes into cabaret a little over a year ago, making her Feinstein’s/54 Below debut with tunes from her Nashville Songbook show. It’s this act that’s the basis of this latest CD. The result is a collection of classic country-pop numbers well known beyond the confines of the Country music charts––each fueled by Barnett’s tremendous vitality. She’s a powerhouse on stage and that force translates to the 13 well-chosen tracks on the CD. Not only is there great depth in the album’s musicality, but it’s also just plain ole tons of enjoyment!

Toe-tapping commences out of the gate with “I Love A Rainy Night” (Eddie Rabbitt/David E. Malloy/Even Stevens), featuring a fantastic guitar intro, creative rhythmic elements and Barnett’s perfect phrasing. That same vocal precision, flexibility and command is on display in another up-tune, “Near You” (Francis Craig/Kermit Goell), which also showcases the inspired arrangements that contribute to the excellence of each song. There’s just the right touch of piano here, guitar there, fiddle over there. The arrangements are actually a collective effort, based on a variety of instrumentation employed over several recording sessions. They range from the enormously lush and dramatic––“It’s Over”(Roy Orbison/William Dees), resplendent with strings––to the more traditionally country with “A Fool Such As I” (Bill Trader), driven by fiddling,  percussion and pedal steel guitar.

What makes A Nashville Songbook rise to the top, though, is Barnett’s interpretive ability. Driven by carefully crafted vocal dynamics, she gets to the heart of the lyric and tells the story. This gift is an immense asset in the country world, since the bulk of the genre’s tunes are story songs––a majority of which deal with various tragedies at that: lost love, unrequited love, blighted love, cheatin’ love and so on. Although by no means a collection of tissue-box favorites, the 13 tracks of the album are true to the country tradition of mostly heartbreak.  What elevates them from the strictly maudlin goes back to the creative arranging and Barnett’s capacity to be one hundred percent authentic in telling the story. In ““Love Hurts” (Boudleaux Bryant), the diva builds her story arc within an affecting ballad, for example. A highlight of the album is Barnett’s bluesy interpretation of “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You) (Hank Williams), a fitting ending for an album lushly produced and executed.

A host of Nashville’s best musicians contributed their substantial talents to A Nashville Songbook. Background vocals are sung by Michael Black, Gary Pigg and Troy Johnson. Instrumentalists include Pat Coil (piano) Gordon Mote (keyboard), Danny O’Lannerghty (upright bass), Larry Paxton (bass), Eddie Bayers, Paul Leim (drums and percussion), Scotty Sanders (pedal steel guitar), Kerry Marx (electric guitars), Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitars, mandolin) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). Violinists include David Davidson, Conni Ellisor, Zoya Lehbin, Jenny Bifano, Alicia Enstrom, Karen Winkelmann, David Angell, Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, Wei Tsun Chang, Ali Hoffman, Janet Darnall, Mark Reneau, Jung-Min Shin, Stefan Petrescu, Maria Conti and Matt Combs. Violas are represented in Kristin Wilkinson, Monisa Angell Betsy Lamb, Seanad Chang and Marie Winget. Cellists are Anthony LaMarchina, Carole Rabinowitz, Austin Hoke, Paul Nelson and Emily Nelson. French horn instrumentalists are Jennifer Kummer, Harry Ditzel, Joey Demko, Beth Beeson and Tara Johnson.