More than 450 people auditioned for the lead role in "Always...Patsy Cline," but Mandy Barnett, with a rich, elegant voice, proved to be leagues ahead of her peers. For the past 15 years, the Nashville-based singer has portrayed the country music legend in the hit musical at the Ryman Auditorium. The show returns to the legendary stage on Fridays-Sundays until July 24.

The script features Cline's most famous songs including “Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces" and “She’s Got You." Louise Seeger, the character who also narrates the play, is portrayed by Tere Myers.

Barnett has performed on a variety of soundtracks, including Space Cowboys, Election and Drop Dead Gorgeous. In the late Nineties, she issued two excellent solo albums, Mandy Barnett and I’ve Got a Right to Cry. Her latest release, Sweet Dreams, includes a number of Cline's classic hits and a few American standards as well.

In her conversation with Out & About Newspaper, Barnett expresses gratitude for the role that made her famous.

What's it like to go into the recording studio with these songs with which you're so familiar, and then to give them a new spin?

A lot of Patsy's songs we do 'em the same way that Patsy did them. They're reproductions of the original, and we really pay homage to Patsy. With some of the ballads we stretched out stylistically and gave them a more jazzy sound.

What could a newcomer to this musical expect or be surprised by during the performance?

Well, very little about the show is about Patsy's life---her personal life, the marriages, the relationships. It's about her relationship with a fan she meets, and they end up staying up all night and drinking, eating and talking. You don't see that anymore, where these two are so open with each other. Artists were a lot more accessible back then. But it gets to the essence of what a good gal she was.

After years of performing in this role, what keeps it fresh for you?

I think one thing that has helped is that we've gone long stretches without doing the show. We were going to do it last year, but when the flood came and we couldn't. But I'm looking forward to performing here in the Ryman, and my co-star (Tere Myers) is incredible. We've gone through a lot of changes since we started the show, and from the first time I met her, we just clicked.

I've had family and friends come see the show, whether it be opening night or whatever, and they keep coming back because there really is something different each time.

As time goes by, what does Patsy Cline mean to you and to American culture?

She, at the time, was one of the first artists who came out and could really cross over. She could sing anything from country to pop to American standards. When someone who's so extraordinarily gifted dies so young, it leaves you wanting more, and that's what's happened with Patsy. I think that's why this play is so successful, and now I hope that new generations will hear her and love her. There's something that sounds timeless about her. It's not like some music from the Eighties that now sounds dated. So I think for years people will continue to discover her.

What music of the present day inspires you?

To be honest, I don't listen to a whole lot of music out now. I kind of live in a my own world. I'm not big on the latest trends. I don't pay a whole lot of attention and I don't want to be influenced. I want to follow my heart.

I don't think it's any secret that I love traditional country music. I just love great songs and great melodies; I love artists who are not afraid to show their vulnerability. Singers like Tammy Wynette, Patsy and George Jones, they sang about things they actually lived. You knew that Tammy had problems with men. What it comes down to is raw emotion.

Has it become easier to separate yourself from this role?

After years of being around and doing a lot of different things, it's helped me to separate things. Most people would aspire to do that. It's an honor and privilege to play her, and I've had the support of people who knew her. I've been here (Nashville) since I was 17, and it's hard to stick around. So longevity has helped me as well.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave in your career?

I want to follow my heart and follow my path, and record great songs. I've developed a niche following and I want to keep making great music. I want to sing about the triangles, the cheating, the drinking. People were a lot more willing to sing about those types of things. Now everybody just goes to therapy and that's it. (laughs)

Tickets are available through the Ryman website or by calling the box office at 615-889-3060.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

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Photo courtesy of Rumble Boxing Gulch Nashville

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