When Miranda Lambert played an unplugged show at Nashville’s City Winery last month, she was joined by nearly a dozen of her musical friends, including Maren Morris, Ashley Monroe, songwriters Nicolle Galyon, Brent Cobb and Shane McAnally, and Lambert’s longtime bandmate Scotty Wray. While the emotional highpoint of the night had to be Lambert’s heart-tugging performance of Wray’s 16-year-old song “Scars,” another of the tunes performed at the show has a history that stretches back even further.
In 1981 — two years before Lambert was born in the Lone Star State — another Texan was nearing the height of her popularity in country music. As the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1980 and 1981, Barbara Mandrell was only the third woman to win the honor, and the first artist ever to take the award twice. Known for her versatility on several musical instruments, in the Seventies and Eighties Mandrell took such tunes as “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed,” “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” and “Years” to the top of the country chart. But it’s her 1981 smash single “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” written by Dennis Morgan and Kye Fleming, which is considered Mandrell’s signature song.
Coming as it did during the Urban Cowboy-inspired boom in country’s popularity, the song had Mandrell lamenting that she “took a lot of kiddin’ ’cause I never did fit in/now look at everybody trying to be what I was then,” at the same time she and her sisters were starring in their NBC variety series, and not long before Mandrell would take her glitzy stage act to Vegas. But the nostalgic tune about watching Roy Rogers movies and putting peanuts in your Coke struck a chord with those who felt country music had gone too far into pop territory. If that wasn’t enough to make the case for country’s coolness, the song also had a secret weapon. Although the track was included on Mandrell’s Live LP, it was actually recorded in the studio and featured George Jones, contributing the title line in pure Possum style.
Jones is also name-checked in the song, with Shane McAnally delivering that line in the above clip. Performed at a tempo that’s much slower than the original, the loose, subdued performance is highlighted by McAnally’s vocal run, which turns the two syllables of “George Jones” into a glorious six, and Lambert’s emotion-packed reading of the lines “I still act and look the same, what you see ain’t nothin’ new.”
On the 2006 tribute LP She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool, the song was covered by Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney.