A hot-rod blonde with a high-drama life, Mindy McCready, like Tammy Wynette, hit fans and the music industry hard in the mid-1990s with that wide-open sob in her voice. As she plied country music’s classic long-suffering female trope defined by Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” and “ ‘Til I Can Make It on My Own,” McCready also made girl power manifestos. The 37-year-old singer allegedly took her own life on Sunday, at her home in Arkansas.
Her first single, “Ten Thousand Angels,” and another from her 1996 debut album, “Maybe He’ll Notice Her Now,” told of the struggle to avoid bad love and take care of oneself in romance. But the songs in which she asserted equal rights when it comes to kicking up stilettos — including her No. 1 hit “Guys Do It All the Time” and “A Girl’s Gotta Do (What a Girl’s Gotta Do),” from her second album — were the ones that struck a nerve.
At 18, McCready convinced her Pentecostal mother to give her a year in Nashville to chase her dream. A meeting with Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Norro Wilson, known for “The Grand Tour” and “The Most Beautiful Girl,” led the ambitious teen with her karaoke tapes to country-pop producer David Malloy, who crafted a coming-of-age siren’s song with a polished sound.
Fifty-one weeks after arriving in Nashville, McCready signed with BNA Records. Carefully crafted to emulate emerging superstars Shania Twain and Faith Hill, her sound was all gloss, but somehow a bit of the old-school ache shone through. Unlike Twain and Hill, who had a knack for finding anthems, McCready’s songs lacked definitive hooks. Incandescent on camera, her persona was a Marilyn Monroe-like amalgamation of childish joy and sexual knowing. Slip-clad and midriff-baring videos gave her a come-hither appeal that drove men wild, but her smile showed female fans someone who was a friend.
Ten Thousand Angels was certified double platinum. McCready was nominated for best new artist at the 1996 American Music Awards and Academy of Country Music Awards. She was engaged to Dean Cain, then Superman in the TV series Lois & Clark. It was a fairy tale for Everygirl who dreamed, but especially a kid with a tough backstory.
Success was taking root, but stability was not. Her teenage brother moved to Music City because of their family’s disruptive home life. “She was a unique singer; she was beautiful and funny,” Joe Galante, who signed McCready while chairman of Nashville’s RCA Label Group, told me. “[Her] first tour was George Strait at the top of his game.”
Her next album, If I Don’t Stay the Night, played on her sex-kitten appeal, but even with the feminist bravado of “A Girl’s Gotta Do,” it only went gold, peaking at No. 12 on the country charts. The cyclone reputation-tweaking I’m Not So Tough, including an audacious mid-tempo “All I Want (Is Everything),” stalled at No. 17. Again, like the legendary Wynette, McCready’s ability to maintain both a country feistiness and timeless heartbreak defined her music.
Yet the drama ended up defining her. A blotter’s worth of arrests for forged prescriptions, assault and DUI, suicide attempts, tabloid residency, sex tapes, mental health issues and toxic relationships, including with a man charged with trying to kill her who later fathered Zander, her 6-year old son, dwarfed her talent. In the end, it also pulled her under.
Three weeks after David Wilson, her current paramour and father of 9-month old son Zayne, died of a probable suicide, she lost custody of her boys. On the same porch where Wilson’s life ended, she took her life with a single bullet to the head.
As Galante said, “So many wrong turns in her life … I pray for her children. To lose a father and mother in a few weeks is incomprehensible. “
Contemporary country stars who were influenced by McCready tweeted their grief. Carrie Underwood: “I grew up listening to Mindy McCready.” Wynonna: “It breaks my heart.” Dixie Chick Natalie Maines: “Too much tragedy to overcome. RIP Mindy McCready.”
Those who knew her speak of joy, sleepovers, get-togethers where she did the cooking. Quick to take in strays, she was a friend to young songwriters and classic songs, bringing an emotional volatility to all. Even Linda Ronstadt’s definitive “Long, Long Time” isn’t quite so tortured as McCready’s torchy meltdown.
The past decade, she wrestled demons. In 2010, she released I’m Still Here, the title track written while she was in jail. The song is a clear-eyed assessment of her struggle, and it signaled a sober turn in a chaotic life. Sadly, the girl whose life was a country song couldn’t live up to it.