12/28/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
Not long ago Stetsons were rare on Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive, Hollywood hadn't gone honky-tonk bonkers and publishers weren't soliciting hillbilly biographies. In short, the Dukes, their low-culture kinfolk and all their ramp-jumping vee-hickles posed no Hazzard for the middle of the American road. But now the country crossover has become a stampede, and nobody better epitomizes the era of pop cornpone than Barbara Mandrell, who turns 33 on Christmas Day. "I was country when country wasn't cool," she boasted in her No. 1 hit this year, and her credentials as an authentic good old gal, if a very sophisticated one, are beyond reproach. This fall she made Nashville history when the Country Music Association voted her Entertainer of the Year for the second year in a row. Nobody, from Eddy Arnold and Johnny Cash to Willie, Loretta, Merle and Dolly, had ever repeated before.
More important, perhaps, for the future of Nashville, Mandrell's embodiment of confectionary rural kitsch has conquered country's last media frontier. Her NBC-TV series, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrel! Sisters Show, co-starring siblings Louise, 27, and Irlene, 25, is in its second surprising season. Since Tennessee Ernie Ford and his pea-pickers left NBC in 1961, only the now syndicated Hee-Haw among country music shows has survived network trial by prime time that long. The secret is Mandrell's girlish sex appeal, pleasant way with a tune, versatility on four instruments and refreshing sense of humor about it all. She began working professionally at age 11, then during her teens played pedal steel guitar with manager-father Irby and mother Mary in the family band. All those years of work have paid off for Barbara, not to mention her ex-drummer husband of 14 years, Ken Dudney, 40, and their two young'uns, Matthew, 11, and Jaime, 5. They've got two Rolls-Royces, a 45-foot yacht, a string of real estate investments, a tour bus more lavishly furnished than many homes, a mansion near Nashville and a rented pied-à-terre in Beverly Hills. None of it came easy, and now that younger performers come to her motorized stateroom for advice, Barbara knows whom—and what—to thank. "As long as I've got my blow dryer and my makeup and electricity to run it all," she says, "I'm in good shape."