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Barbara Mandrell - on the road again.


Thirty-four pounds down and 11to go, Barbara Mandrell's pumping iron again at Gold's gym. She frets that her waist is gone and her muscles are soft, so her favorite pencil-legged blue jeans have given way to a pink blouse worn loose over one-size-fits-all warm-up pants. She calls herself a "blob"--all 111 pounds of her--but says she's in training, and when she breaks camp soon for round one of her comeback campaign, she'll be in fighting form again.

"I always used to laugh under mybreath and whisper jokes to my husband when I'd see pregnant women who waddled," she says. "I'll never laugh again. With my other babies I gained 20 pounds; with this one I gained 45 because of the inactivity. boy, did I waddle."

The waddle is gone, but a slightlimp persists, a painful remnant of a tragic head-on auto crash that began what she calls the worst year of her life. A steel rod still runs the length of her thigh, and plastic surgery is scheduled to repair scar tissue on an arm and a knee where pieces of her car's dashboard and radio knobs were embedded in her flesh. As serious as her physical injuries were--she was hospitalized for weeks and underwent therapy twice a day at home for several months--the emotional stress lingered long after the bones had knit and the bruises had faded. She suffered from what she refers to as the "I don't cares"--mood swings that caused her to withdraw, robbed her of her characteristic spunk, and made her want to do little more than watch television alone.

"I still feel that way a little bit,and it's not like me," she admits. "I was always one whose drive was overwhelming at times. I loved my work and thought I couldn't live without it. After the wreck I became another person. I didn't want to do anything. Whereas I used to love to read everything from the Bible to autobiographies to Louis L'Amour novels, suddenly I wasn't interested. I didn't even want to listen to the radio. It makes no sense at all."

Barbara's trauma began after theconcussion she suffered in a two-car collision the evening of September 11, 1984. She, her son, Matthew, and her daughter, Jaime, had left Rivergate Mall after a back-to-school shopping spree. En route to their sprawling two-story home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, they noticed a station wagon traveling with its tailgate down and young children playing in the back. Barbara, who rarely used seat belts ("unless I rode with my sister Louise and she insisted that I buckle up"), was bothered by the obvious danger to the tots.

"It made us uncomfortable," sherecalls, "so just to break the tenseness of the moment, I said to Matt and Jaime: 'Let's put on our seat belts and then we'll be safe.' Now, people can say what they want, but I know it was God's will, because that was the last thing I remember before the wreck. I put on the seat belt, and the next thing I recall was two weeks later in the hospital."

She is thankful she does not rememberthe red Subaru drifting across the center line and into the path of her silver Jaguar. The teenage driver of the other car was killed instantly. (Why he lost control of the wheel is unknown.) Barbara was rushed to a nearby intensive-care unit; Matt was hospitalized with a fractured nose and cheekbone; and Jaime, who had been riding in the back seat, was treated for cuts and released. All three sustained painful bruises from the seat belts that nonetheless prevented their being propelled through the windshield.

"That was September 11, but thefirst day I remember was September 26. I've been told that I talked and did things before that, but I was really weird. I guess I yelled and screamed. I was grouchy--no, that's too nice a word. My doctor and minister assure me that concussions can do that to you," she says.

One of Barbara's first concernsafter she regained her perspective: the Jaguar, now a twisted mass of silver-painted metal. She wanted it stored. Her reason? Someday, she thought, she could tell the American people how vital seat belts are to safety. Her words might have clout, but the sight of her demolished Jag would be the clincher.

A planned all-out seat-belt promotionwas put on hold while she recuperated from the collision and later endured a painful and unplanned pregnancy. "My doctor said my body wasn't ready to be pregnant," she recalls. "It was truly a very miserable nine months. I was literally depressed from the time my senses came back to me after the accident until the time the baby was born."

Today Barbara marvels that herhusband of 18 years, Ken Dudney, stayed with her during the months of seclusion, the bouts of tears, and the emotional ups and downs. Confined to the family's beige, overstuffed couch, she could do little more than watch the fan buses stream past out front and the boats sputter by on Old Hickory Lake behind the house. For the first time in her life, Barbara Mandrell, energy-charged, twice a winner of the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year honors, was sidelined, a spectator monitoring the world by means of an electronic security screen mounted in the corner of the Dudney's family room.

"It was a difficult, difficult pregnancy. Icried a lot," she says. "But it was worth every bit of the pain. I'd do it again if it would get me Nathaniel. His name, by the way, means 'a gift from God.'"

A robust seven pounds, sevenounces, her baby arrived early, September 6, 1985 (11 days before the date set for a Caesarean section). Although Barbara's obstetrician had run tests during the pregnancy to monitor the fetus, Barbara and Ken decided that abortion was unthinkable regardless of the results; nor did they want to know their baby's sex, information also available from the tests. When the announcement was made--a boy--gifts of blue deluged the Dudney household. Barbara Walters sent a needlepoint pillow, President Reagan a letter addressed directly to Nathaniel, and stuffed animals--heavy on the bears--arrived wearing sequins, bow ties, and tams.

Such an outpouring of sentiment istypical of Mandrell fans: After the accident more than 450 floral arrangements and a mail avalanche unprecedented in Nashville's history had clogged operations at Baptist Hospital. Similar support was expressed on the first anniversary of the car collision, when Barbara found herself once again in the hospital, this time with the happy mission of ushering Nathaniel Mandrell Dudney into the world.

"To be honest, the anniversarybothered me tremendously," she says. "I tried to concentrate on Nathaniel, but I kept thinking about the young man who hit us, and the pain his parents must feel. I've never lost a child, and I can't conceive in my wildest imagination what it would be like. How do they cope? Although I've never met them, everything I've ever heard about them is that they are fine, Christian people."

Concerned for her fans,she plans to say "thank you" during an abbreviated concert tour in March and April. It won't be as physical as her typical show--bounding around the stage interacting with the audience; playing sax, steel guitar, and banjo; and mixing sexy ballads with near-rock country tunes. Still, she's already thinking about how to compensate for her temporary limitations.

"I'm only satisfied when that sweatstarts dripping and I'm really pushing it," she says. "Then I feel, yes, I'm giving the person who bought the ticket a show I'm proud of. I'll wear tall boots to give support around my ankles and then I'll work like normal; but I won't be dancing like I did on my CBS and HBO specials."

A more practical reason for her upcomingtour is money--or lack of it. When her car came to a screening halt 16 months ago, so did her career. Although she carried adequate insurance, a Mandrell spokesperson explains that Tennessee law requires a lawsuit on Barbara's behalf before a settlement can be made. Such legalities take time.

Fortunately, like most celebritieswith savvy business managers (Ken oversees her finances), Barbara has diversified investments. A chain of one-hour photo labs in the Nashville area has been successful; a charter yacht is another source of income; and Barbara Mandrell Country is one of the most popular attractions along Nashville's glittering Music Row. The museum is packed with Mandrell memorabilia, from childhood crayon sketches, to film clips of her first public performance, to the white-and-pink nightgown she wore on her wedding night in 1967. Even the Dudney bedroom is re-created--right down to the soft-drink can on the nightstand. In a town where tourists can tour Hank Williams' homestead, the Grand Ole Opry, Twitty City, June Carter Cash's antique shops, and Minnie Pearl's yellow-and-white farmhouse replica, Barbara Mandrell Country lures 1,300 visitors on a good day.

Such varied business interests havehelped preserve the family's financial stability in spite of the canceled contracts and the postponed bookings. Barbara worried, however, about other members of her organization--drivers, musicians, vocalists--also out of work because of her forced hiatus: "It tore me up. I didn't let my band go for several months, knowing good and well I couldn't go back onstage. Some of the guys had been with me ten years. It was really hard."

The pace will pick up andthe call will go out to former employees as soon as the family returns from their annual winter ski vacation in Aspen. ("Nathaniel and I will stay inside the condo this year," she says.) A made-for-TV movie, A Question of Blame, is set for filming soon. Barbara, though excited about the script, prefers not to comment about the plot. She says the subject matter has never been addressed on TV, and she wants to preserve the element of surprise.

The concert tour will follow, plusthe taping of several commercials for products she endorses. An album in the works will require weeks in the studio. She admits that such a schedule would "choke a horse," but that it may be just the therapy she needs to escape the doldrums of her year's sabbatical. "It was very hard for me to say 'yes' to the tour. I'll only have a week after the TV movie to put a show together, but maybe that's for a reason. Maybe I need to be pushed that hard," she says.

The project she anticipatesmost will pay her in satisfaction only. The public-service announcement emphasizing seat-belt use is finally ready to be filmed. Barbara says: "I didn't want to do it when I was pregnant because I didn't want anything to detract from the impact of the message. I want the car there to get attention. I want people to see what's left of the car and then hear me say that I'm alive because I used seat belts--that I had a chance to live, and I want everybody to have that chance."

She and her family recently droveto where the Jaguar has been stored since the collision. "I said to Matt and Jaime: 'Let's stare at this and let's memorize it so every night we can thank Jesus we're alive, because we don't have the right to be.' This isn't my opinion; it's a fact. There was absolutely no place for my legs in that wreckage. That's why a couple of weeks ago when I was griping about my ankle it hit me: Hey, be glad your ankle hurts. You shouldn't have an ankle. You shouldn't have a leg."

If the past year has been the mostdifficult of her life, in many ways it has been her most successful. Before the accident Barbara and Ken had wanted another baby: Only after the wreck, when she decided she couldn't cope with a pregnancy, did she learn she was expecting. Now she credits God with knowing exactly what her family needed. The difficult confinement, coupled with the mental anguish that followed the collision, also taught her to make every day count. It's a philosophy she hopes to hold on to as her career kicks into high gear again in 1986.

"I think more now about eternityand how we have only a very short time here," she says. "I see Matt--he's 15 now--playing football and I wonder, where did the time go? We just had our 18th anniversary in May ... where did it go? I've always said that life is short; but now I don't just say it--I know it."
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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