On Her 30th Anniversary Barbara Mandrell’s As Busy As Ever (1997)

It's 9 a.m. and the Mandrell/Dudney household is already percolating, even though Barbara and Ken didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. 

Ken had been working on a chain of restaurants they're opening, while Barbara, after making decisions about her new line of jewelry, wrapped up her traditional end-of-the-day task—writing to whichever children are away from home at the moment. 

Ken gets ready to take sons Matthew and Nathan skeet shooting and Barbara waits for someone to pick up one of her old steel guitars to help a St. Jude's fundraising auction.

She's in the middle of packing for a week in the Bahamas with 11-year-old Nathan, their youngest son, and tonight's set aside for dinner at Nashville's Caffe Milano, where eldest son Matthew is now a chef. 

The phone rings nonstop. Faxes sail back and forth about Barbara's two new albums, a new ongoing role on NBC-TV's Sunset Beach and pre-production notes about a CBS movie of her life. And as the dogs demand to be let in -- and out -- Barbara and Ken talk with COUNTRY WEEKLY. 

Fortunately, chaos is nothing new to this couple, who have managed to juggle family and business while nourishing a remarkable marriage that, as of May 28, will have lasted 30 years. Theirs is a profound, affectionate and often laugh-filled commitment to marriage and family in a business not always famous for either. 

"We're separated a lot," Ken teases when asked the secret of their success. 

"His sense of humor is one of the things I fell in love with," Barbara retorts. "Anybody who can put up with me would have to have a sense of humor."

"You fell in love with my money," he quips, reminding her of his 1967 salary -- $647 a month as a Navy ensign.

They met when Barbara was 14 and her father, Irby, hired 22-year-old Ken as the family band's drummer. 

"We wouldn't allow our daughter to date until she was 16," said Barbara, recalling that  their daughter Jaime, now 21 and pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles, used to think that was so unfair. 

"Jaime used to complain, 'Mom, you were 14 when you and dad started going together,' and I said, 'If you find a man like your dad, you can date. But I've got news for you -- there isn't another one like him.' Ken was a Christian who lived the life, walked the walk and talked the talk. He was fun, he was smart, he was respectful and hard-working. There was nothing not to like."

"Notice how she keeps saying was," Ken says, stifling a grin.

They married 10 days before Barbara was graduated from high school. "Looks kinda fishy, doesn't it?" Barbara says with a laugh. "But we wanted two weeks together before I had to leave for four months to entertain in Vietnam."

Matthew's birth three years later caught them by surprise, they say. "You know those little pills?" Barbara asks. "I was brilliant at 18 -- I thought if I missed a day I could take two the next day. It doesn't work that way. 

"I had just gotten my first bus, and it had a full bathroom and kitchen. Mama traveled with us, so we'd sleep in the bus and get a motel room for the guitar player who was also our bus driver. That's when we found out I was pregnant. There were so many mixed emotions, and we wondered how we were going to afford it. But you know what? God knew the way."

"We shared responsibilities," Ken chimes in. "There were no men's jobs or women's jobs. I changed diapers and she changed diapers and we both fed him. 

"Matthew was in a bassinet at the foot of our bed. We'd fix the formula, make up the bottles and put them in the refrigerator. We'd put a bottle on my side of the bed, and when Matthew cried I would get up, change and feed him, then get another bottle and put it on Barbara's side so it would be room temperature when he woke up again. 

"One night I took my turn, put a bottle on her side of the bed and went back to sleep. A couple of hours later the baby was crying again, so I nudged Barbara. She got up, took the bottle, walked right past the baby and put the bottle on my side of the bed and went back to bed. She forgot she had to change and feed him!"

"It was like sleepwalking," says Barbara, who still laughs at the memory. "He told me about it the next morning, and I didn't even remember." On another night, Ken swears,  Barbara stirred when Matthew began to cry. "She said, 'Ken, Ken, the noise will wake the baby.' I told her, 'The noise is the baby.' "

By the time Jaime came along, Barbara's career was in full gear. That meant they could afford help; it also meant Barbara was gone more. Neither was fully aware of it yet, but frequent separations would soon become the norm.

"There were times she'd be gone for weeks, and I'd be home alone," Ken says. He pauses for effect. "Well . . . that's what I told her." They laugh about it now, but Barbara's career meant sacrifices for them all.

"I remember doing the show in L.A. when Jaime was at a wonderful ballet school in Beverly Hills," Barbara says. "I couldn't be at the performance, so they let me come to the dress rehearsal. And when Matthew studied Tae Kwon Do, I only got to watch him once in two years. 

"Mostly Ken was father and mother—but the children would all tell you there are things that they've been able to do, people they've been able to meet, things they've been able to experience and vacations they've been able to take because of those sacrifices. If you intend to succeed, you have to work really, really hard, and I've done that for all but the first 11 years of my life."

Some of those sacrifices influenced her music; others helped her create the costume jewelry line, Barbara Mandrell's Country Sentiments, shown on QVC. 

On May 17 and June 28, Barbara will play Alexandra Mitchum on daytime TV's newest drama, Sunset Beach. Producer Aaron Spelling wanted Barbara as a contract player, but since she didn't want to live in L.A. full-time, they agreed on a two-month relocation—and that coincided perfectly with work on the CBS movie-of-the-week based on Get to the Heart: My Story, Barbara's 1990 autobiography.

She appears as her current-day self in the movie, while two other actresses handle the earlier years. "Originally, it was just a child actress and an adult actress, but now they want me to play me at the end," she tells COUNTRY WEEKLY, "and I'm still young enough to do that!"

The new albums on Razor & Tie were released last month: her studio album It Works for Me is available at record stores, and Barbara Mandrell's Greatest Hits, a 40-song compilation, is being sold on TV. She describes the former, her first co-production, as the favorite of her 41-year career. "Brent Rowan, the most recorded guitarist in Nashville and one of my dearest friends, produced it with me.

"I've been performing since I was a little girl, and I don't have to tell you about my love for country music," says Barbara, whose 55 country hits include "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed" and "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool."

"My music heroes were James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Wes Montgomery, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Jeannie Seely, Connie Smith, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. 

"The only thing I thought could make country music better was more bottom end, because my favorite instrument is the bass. Now it has that, too. I love the fact that you can hear something traditional one minute and something with a little funk the next. This album is very now—and since what's happening now is what I love, it was a joy to make."

This evening, Ken, Barbara and Nathan head off for their first dinner at Caffe Milano, where Matthew will cook part of the meal and wait on them.

They could have picked a quieter night: A Christian-rock band is there shooting a music video, and it isn't soft rock. "I think they’re heavy metal," says Ken.

Matthew appears, hugs his family and recommends the pizza to Nathan. "I'll make one just the way you want it," he promises. That means, at least for tonight, a combination of cheese, Italian sausage, pepperoni and shrimp. 

Ken decides on shrimp scampi and Barbara chooses the Cornish game hen. As the band and video crew depart, Nathan watches Matthew twirl pizza in mid-air as the other cooks prepare Ken and Barbara's orders. A few minutes later, Matthew appears with three dishes that could earn prizes for beauty alone. After the family links arms in a silent blessing, Nathan demolishes his pizza, leaving only bits of crust. 

His dad's plate is even cleaner. "I guess that'll hold us until dinner," Ken says with a satisfied sigh, sopping up some leftover sauce. Suddenly aware of what he's doing, he snickers. "Look at Mr. Class. She can't take me anywhere." 

This time, however, Nathan earns the one-liner award. Asked about his pizza, he says, with a straight face, "I didn't like it, but I didn't want to hurt Matthew's feelings, so I ate everything." Then he gets serious. "He gets an A-plus, because he remembered everything and it looked pretty, too." 

Ever since Irby retired as Barbara's manager, Ken has run the family businesses, which include Fazoli's, a chain of Italian fast-food franchises, another group of eateries called Tumbleweeds, plus a financial interest in the chain's owner, Spartan Food Group. This means that Ken and Barbara spend a lot more time together, which obviously pleases them both. 

"I told Ken the other morning, 'I want to apologize for not always treating you the way I feel about you. You're the smartest, most remarkable man I know,' " she says.

"She doesn't get out much," Ken jokes.

Barbara ignores him. "I said, 'I take you for granted sometimes, and that's wrong. I apologize, and I'll try to be different.' " 

After their first 30 years, dinner together will be enough celebration. They've already renewed their wedding vows twice and plan to do so again—on their 50th. Some things just get better with time.

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