Music fans of a certain vintage will recognize Barbara Mandrell’s distinctive twang almost immediately – especially when “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” comes on the radio. And through the chart-topping highs and heartbreaking lows – including the car crash that could have cost her her life – the Sweetheart of the Steel has had husband Ken Dudney at her side. The two have been together since the ’60s, in fact, which is quite an achievement by anyone’s standards. So, what exactly is the truth behind the couple’s long marriage?
Well, for starters, you should know that Mandrell first met the love of her life as a teenager. At that time, the multi-talented star played saxophone and pedal steel in the Mandrell Family Band, which included her siblings Louise and Irlene on backing vocals. Mandrell’s mom Mary Ellen and father Irby both played a part, too, taking on bass and guitar, respectively. But the clan looked elsewhere for a drummer: none other than Dudney himself.
Mandrell and Dudney soon made their professional relationship a personal one, too. But the significant age gap between the lovestruck pair meant that their affair was allegedly met with strong disapproval. You see, while the drummer was 21 years old at the time, his young sweetheart was only 14. That would be a real scandal now – and it wasn’t exactly swept under the carpet back then.
Understandably, Mandrell’s worried parents are said to have done their best to separate the couple. And to start with, they were successful, as the singer went several years without seeing her future husband following her folks’ intervention. Love eventually found a way, though, as Mandrell reunited with Dudney after he had returned from serving in the Vietnam War.
Absence appeared to make the heart grow fonder, too, as in 1967 – and now aged a more respectable 19 – Mandrell tied the knot with Dudney. But as fans know, the star didn’t completely put her dreams on hold to become a housewife. Within a year of becoming Mrs. Dudney, she decided to return to the recording studio – knowing, perhaps, that she had the secret of a successful marriage under her belt.
So, have Mandrell and Dudney kept together for the kids? Not as far as we know – especially as their three children are very much grown up now. Kenneth arrived in 1970, with Jaime following six years later. The pair then took a little time out before further adding to their family with son Nathaniel in 1986.
And the two oldest of Mandrell’s children have both followed in the showbiz footsteps of their mother. Going by his middle name of Matt, Kenneth is a Christian singer-songwriter just like his wife Christy Sutherland. He’s also worked as a professional chef. But life hasn’t always gone smoothly for Mandrell’s first son. Reportedly, he has spent time in a rehab center following a battle with substance abuse.
That’s a subject Jaime may know about, too, as she now helps individuals with addiction issues. Once, the singer’s only daughter aspired to a life on screen, taking roles in Diagnosis Murder and As the World Turns. Jaime then worked as the director of hospitality at Fontanel – the tourist attraction that used to be her mother’s home.
Meanwhile, Mandrell’s youngest, Nathan, is a married man, having tied the knot with a gynecologist named Hanah. He’s come a long way, then, since the time when the country star feared he wouldn’t survive labor. Mandrell once told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “We had to go all through the night thinking that our baby was dead. When God showed him to us, he wasn’t dead. He was sucking his thumb.” And that’s a small clue to what the singer believes has helped sustain her marriage.
That union has certainly survived some hard times as well. A couple of years before Nathan’s traumatic birth, Mandrell had nearly lost her own life in a dramatic car accident. The star suffered injuries as well as amnesia following the head-on collision on the freeway. Mandrell’s children Kenneth and Jaime were in the backseat at the time and were also injured, although they both went on to make full recoveries. Tragically, the same can’t be said of the other driver involved in the crash, who ultimately passed away.
This brush with death prompted Mandrell to reevaluate her life. She began to slow things down with her music career and in 1997 decided to quit both the stage and the studio for good. Of course, by this point, the singer had already established herself as a true country music great.
Mandrell had actually begun performing at age five, with the accordion her instrument of choice. Encouraged by her father to pursue her musical talent, she was later spotted by Joe Maphis and Chet Atkins at a Chicago music trade convention. And this led to a big break, as Atkins would invite Mandrell to join him on stage at his nightclub show in Las Vegas. By the time she had entered her teens, Mandrell had also toured with both Tex Ritter and Johnny Cash. Pretty impressive – especially at such a young age.
Then, in 1969, Mandrell caught national attention after landing a contract with Columbia Records. And that same year, she scored her first chart hit with a rendition of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” – originally recorded by soul legend Otis Redding. Before the ’70s were out, she’d also been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. But chart success didn’t come quite as quickly.
Mandrell’s work with acclaimed country producer Billy Sherill failed to spawn any hits, and that in turn led to some self-doubt. Mandrell has been quoted by Biography.com as saying, “There have been many times when I thought other people might be better singers or better musicians or prettier than me. But then I would hear Daddy’s voice telling me to never say never, and I would find a way to squeeze an extra inch or two out of what God had given me.”
Eventually, Mandrell managed to achieve a commercial breakthrough. Hitting the shelves in 1973, The Midnight Oil introduced her to a much wider audience and later led to a deal with ABC/DOT. This appeared to pay off in 1978, when she achieved her first country number one with “Sleeping Single in A Double Bed.” All the while, of course, Dudney had her back.
Mandrell’s golden streak continued with further number one hits including “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” “Years” and “One of a Kind Pair of Fools.” In 1980 she was also given her own NBC TV show in Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters. And two years later, the singer ventured into the gospel market with the album He Set My Life to Music.
In fact, He Set My Life to Music gave Mandrell her first Grammy Award for Best Inspirational Performance. Speaking to Cece Winans, the singer revealed why she decided to embrace her spirituality on record. She said, “It’s all, every bit, from God. He orchestrated all of it. The only reason I got to reap the benefits of His guidance… is because I know Him, I gave myself to Him.”
This wasn’t the first time that the music industry had recognized Mandrell’s considerable talents, either. She was crowned Country Music Association (CMA) Female Vocalist of the Year in 1979 and then again in 1981. That same year, the vocalist also became the first back-to-back winner of the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year.
Sadly, after experiencing a vocal strain in 1982, Mandrell was ordered by doctors to call time on her NBC show. But the country star was back on stage a year later – this time with a Las Vegas residency titled “The Lady Is A Champ.” And in 1984 she teamed up with Lee Greenwood for duets collection Clean Cut.
Mandrell then added author to her list of talents with her 1990 memoir Get to the Heart: My Story. But come 1997, It Works for Me proved to be her studio swansong. She bid farewell as a live performer the same year with the show “Barbara Mandrell and The Do Rites: The Last Dance.” And since her retirement, the singer has enjoyed spending time with her family on their Texas ranch. This includes Dudney, of course, as Mandrell knows exactly how to keep her marriage on track.
That said, Mandrell has occasionally returned to the spotlight in the intervening years. In 2009 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, fulfilling one of her father’s lifelong ambitions in the process. Sadly, though, Irby wasn’t around to see his daughter honored. He had passed away just months before the ceremony.
Furthermore, the country legend has given the odd interview since her retirement. In 2002 she talked to the Christian Broadcasting Network about her varied career and eventful personal life. Indeed, she mentioned the very first time that she met her future husband. Mandrell said, “He was smart enough to be kind and polite but cool. When I fell, I fell hard. We went together all through high school.”
But although Mandrell fell head over heels with Dudney, she made him wait before she accepted one of his many marriage proposals. She explained, “We were very much in love, and we very much wanted to get married. I very much had to graduate from high school first.”
Interviewer Scott Ross then asked Mandrell what the secret was to her long-lasting marriage. And perhaps unsurprisingly, considering she was talking to the Christian Broadcasting Network, her answer had a strong religious angle. The country star said, “By our Heavenly Father and only because of God, only because of God.”
Mandrell went on to add, “We’re like other couples. We do not get along perfectly; we do not go without arguments and, as I call them, fights and heartache and pain and hurting each other.” The singer then made quite the claim, adding, “But a marriage is three of us.”
Having been officially retired for five years at the time of the interview, Mandrell was asked how she was coping with a life of leisure. She answered, “I was worried about that. I was worried because I had always heard, ‘That’s all you have ever known. You will never be able to give up, most of all, the audience and the applause.’”
Even so, Mandrell acknowledged that she’d been lucky to have experienced such a successful career. She continued, “I treasure what I was given, the moments with the most wonderful people that gave me the opportunity in life to be able to retire from my music.” However, the star also talked about when she realized it was time to call it a day.
And unsurprisingly, Mandrell’s faith played a part. She added, “But I think, without a doubt, you’ll know what I am saying, not just me but Ken and I. We talked and talked and talked. We prayed and prayed and prayed. I kept wondering when, and when the time came, it was immediate. It came so fast. And God, He doesn’t steer us wrong.”
To add to that, Mandrell was asked about the key to her enduring marriage in an interview with The Boot seven years later. The singer was speaking to the site ahead of her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And by this point, her youngest son was getting ready to tie the knot himself.
So what advice did Mandrell give to her third child ahead of his nuptials? She said, “My husband and I just told them to pray together, to make it a three-way marriage: the two of them and God.” The star also confessed, “There are times when Ken and I would like to put each other through a wall!”
Then Mandrell went on to tell The Boot, “It happens, but we married for forever, and keeping God at the center of our lives has made it work and made it blessed and happy. Ken and I both are outgoing people – we’re yellers and screamers! But we’re also passionate at making up.”
Throughout the 2010s, Mandrell continued to keep a low profile. But in 2020 she gave several interviews to promote an unlikely semi-comeback, this time as a dance diva. Yes, Dave Audé, a DJ/producer who’d previously remixed the likes of Madonna and LeAnn Rimes, decided to rework Mandrell’s first number one, “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.”
Thankfully, Mandrell liked Audé’s handiwork. She told the San Antonio Express News, “I love so many of the treatments he did. The only thing is – this sounds silly, it’s very me – I was hoping that he wouldn’t take out the bass. You can pretty much take away anybody. But not the bass player, or I’m outta here. And it’s in there! It’s just got a good feel to it.”
So more than a decade on from her Country Music Hall of Fame induction, did Mandrell regret calling time on her career relatively early? “Never, not one for second, have I been sorry that I retired,” she replied when asked by the newspaper. “I worked 38 years, and I started when I was 11. It was very satisfying. I didn’t take any of it for granted.”
Despite the positive reception to Audé’s remix, Mandrell stated that she has no plans to revive her music career. However, around the same time, the star did join both Twitter and Instagram. A hits collection, After All These Years, was also released on vinyl.
In fact, the singer reiterated just how much she’s enjoyed leaving showbiz behind in a 2020 chat with Sounds like Nashville. The Grammy winner told the country music site, “I’ve been living a very relaxed wonderful life.” She went on to add how she enjoys cooking, cleaning and spending time with her husband of more than 50 years.
What’s more, Mandrell remains as close as ever to the rest of her family. Her daughter Jamie, who came up with the title of her hits collection, FaceTimes her parents every day along with her son Jax. Mandrell also revealed that she’d been spending more time with her nearest and dearest in 2020.
Mandrell told Sounds like Nashville, “We have a camp for our family, for our kids and us. We have 64 acres and we built cabins, one for each of the kids and then there’s a family cabin with a full kitchen. We are staying here so that we stay away from people and our oldest son Matt is a professional chef so this is great.”
Unsurprisingly, Mandrell and her husband were taking full advantage of having such an expert in the kitchen. She added, “He’s [Matt] been taking care of us and running whatever errands for us with his mask and gloves on. Then he cleans the groceries when they get here outside the cabin and brings them in. Since he’s a professional chef he makes our dinner. I can’t complain.”
And Mandrell concluded the interview by thanking her fans for supporting her throughout her music career. She told Sounds like Nashville, “I’m just deeply grateful for them making it possible for me to have such a wonderful life. It was them and God that gave us a great life. I just appreciate them and love them.”