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There she was, a 5-year-old girl from Crossville, Tenn., lost in the buy-me-a-pony dreams of most little girls. But then Amanda Carol Barnett tottered over to that curious musical toy, hit the On switch, and started singing. Mr. Microphone, with a little help from the girl’s parents, would take care of the rest.

As a 10-year-old, Barnett was performing cheesy song-‘n’-dance summer theater at nearby Dollywood. By age 12, the budding country-western chanteuse was showing up on Midnight Jamboree, the hit-making radio show broadcast from Ernest Tubb’s Nashville record store. And finally, at 18, Barnett would send her career into never-look-back mode by landing the lead role in Always…Patsy Cline, a big-budget production that packed ’em in at the historic Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grande Ole Opry. Of the hundreds of women who auditioned for the coveted part, Barnett was one of the few who didn’t show up in a ridiculous black wig and goofy cowgirl outfit. Instead, she just brought a picture and her voice.

Now 23, Mandy Barnett is still a young woman, but the singer has experienced a good number of highs—see above—and a good number of lows—divorced parents, strong ties to the Future Farmers of America, a job at a Ponderosa—in the short span of her years. And it’s with the constant aftertaste of hard work and blitzkrieg success—a bittersweet journey, to be sure—that she embraces the low-key honky-tonk standards that have put her name high on the list of Next Big Things.

Teen queen LeAnn Rimes started very much the same way: youth gone wild with fame, a voice that resonated from a much earlier time, and constant comparisons to Patsy (thanks in large part to Rimes’ first and biggest hit, the Cline-inspired “Blue”). But whereas Rimes has proved unable to calm her rampant crossover desires—is it really so hard to turn down a duet with Elton John these days?—Barnett has stayed true to her spiritual school—not to mention the songs that have brought her so far, so fast.

On I’ve Got a Right to Cry, the follow-up to her critically and commercially popular 1996 self-titled debut, Barnett switches producers—from former Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand slickmaster Bill Schnee to Nashville legend Owen Bradley—and further strengthens her ’50s juke-joint aura. Blessed with a smooth, full-bodied voice not unlike Linda Ronstadt’s, Barnett—who resembles a more natural-looking Alyssa Milano (must be a child-star thing)—oozes an intriguing blend of cool and heartache on all 12 of the new tracks here. Shania Twain only wishes she had half the bred-in-the-bone abundance of sass and class Barnett so easily displays.

Sadly, Bradley, who produced Cline herself in the late ’50s and early ’60s, died halfway through the project (he was 82), but the songs on which he personally worked the soundboard for Barnett are among the album’s strongest. With the Nashville String Machine, the background vocals of throwback group Tennessee, and Buddy Emmons’ plucky steel guitar setting the lush, melancholy landscape of the title track, Barnett trades in her 23 years for a whole lot more and unloads a lifetime of heartache with low-moan, high-wail vocals. On “The Whispering Wind (Blows on By),” Barnett does her best Ronstadt impression and follows a “Blue Bayou” lead through a subtly tropical arrangement. And “Mistakes” and “Don’t Forget to Cry” come off as true Cline-ish weepers, songs to be played only after a big breakup or, for that matter, just before one.

Even on the scattering of mid- to up-tempo numbers, Barnett’s voice is tinged with an innate sadness that contrasts wildly with her age. On “Falling, Falling, Falling,” Stuart Duncan’s fiddle and Pig Robbins’ piano keep the beat crisp and perky, but amidst the good time, Barnett issues a very real warning about the tragic nature of her sensitive heart. “Who (Who Will It Be)” is a flirtatious shuffle fueled by Buddy Harman’s drums, but when Barnett reaches the soaring chorus, she replaces her carefree musings with an authentic longing that shakes the foundation of emotional stability.

At the very least, I’ve Got a Right to Cry provides a valuable and scarce commodity: quality make-out music. But more importantly, Barnett’s second effort is a tradition-rich reminder of how great country music can be when it’s created for reasons other than those involving first-week sales. Barnett’s sophomore effort caresses rather than grabs, and its star power has to do with those in the sky, not those in skimpy outfits and prime-time specials. No doubt Mr. Microphone would be proud. CP