Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Nashville dreams

NASHVILLE - Anita Mandell's friends from Rogers High School and the Reynolds-Dorr neighborhood would take a new album, give it a spin on the record player, and put aside the jacket cover. She thought reading about the producers and label information on the cover was just as interesting.

Years later when she moved to Nashville, she cruised up and down the alleys on Music Row, dreaming of breaking into the business - not as a singer but as an employee of one of the big labels located along Music Square East or Music Square West.

Ten years after her initial forays to Music City, the 41-year-old Mandell is sitting behind a desk in her office inside Sony Nashville at 34 Music Square East. A full-door-length Ricky Martin stares seductively out at her from a poster.

“It's a joke. They like to mess with me. We like to have fun around here,” she says, doubling over with laughter.

Here is the heartbeat of Sony's publicity machine. She's a director of press/publicity for the label giant, responsible for helping to shape the images of Travis Tritt, Buddy Jewell, Marty Stuart, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The 1980 Rogers graduate exudes energy and has one of those throw-back-the-head-and-fill-the-room-with-laughter types of personality.

“I've always wanted to be in music because of what music did to me, how it made me feel, how it was able to tap into people's emotions,” she says.

Across town, her husband, Will Mandell, is maneuvering his pickup through traffic in a driving rainstorm, headed to a fan club party for Rebecca Lynn Howard. He has been her bass guitar player since 2000. If not for that full-time gig, he could probably make a living impersonating Cledus T. Judd. He's got the same bleached-blond hair and wise-cracking personality as the country music singer/comedian.

Veterans of the Toledo bar scene will remember him as a pioneer of sorts. He started a punk rock band called the London Boys that played at Prime Time, Club Soda, and A Touch of Class. In Nashville, he gravitated to country music. Toledo, it turned out, wasn't the place for him to fulfill his songwriting and musical potential.

“I truly felt that I wanted to grow as a musician, and there wasn't room to grow there,” the 44-year-old Sylvania native says.

In the country capital of the world, a city filled with successful musical couples (Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Mutt Lange and Shania Twain, and Jessica Andrews and Marcel, just to name a few), Anita and Will Mandell are laying out their own blueprint for success.

For Anita Mandell, the origins of her success can be traced back to those album covers and CD notes.

“All my life I've read the label copies on albums, so I recognized names. I went through phones books and called up management companies.”

One of those management companies was Doyle-Lewis, who happened to be overseeing the career of a certain Garth Brooks of Oklahoma.

In Nashville, luck is usually a huge contributing factor in getting a start, and luck smiled on Mandell when she reached Danny Petraikis on that day in 1991. He was looking for someone to help out in a new public relations firm, PLA Media, that he and Pam Lewis were going to be starting. A lunch meeting convinced him that Mandell, who had no public relations experience but plenty of fresh ideas, could help.

Drawing on the big-time Lewis name, the fledgling firm struck gold when they signed up the new duo Brooks and Dunn and Diamond Rio, a group just starting to hit its stride.

“I believe that getting into the country music biz when I did turned out to be great timing, just due to the fact that in the early '90s country music reached heights and levels of mass appeal that it had never seen before.”

Mandell's inexperience and naivete turned out to be an advantage in marketing the firm's roster of talent.

“I was so green, I'd just call up The Tonight Show and say `How about having so and so on?' At that point, I was into it all the way. I loved it.”

She began putting together weekly nuggets on her clients, such as stories from the road, that she would send out as a newsletter to major media outlets. That practice has been copied by many of today's major Nashville publicity firms.

Mandell parlayed her initial experience in marketing into her most rewarding job. In 1992, she convinced Alan Jackson's management team that the up-and-coming superstar would benefit from an in-house publicist. A meeting with Jackson on the set of his filming of Chattahoochee sealed the deal and started a four-year business relationship.

“He treated me like a queen. He was wonderful. When I was pregnant [with son Henry], he threw me a shower at their house. In my last trimester, I found out I had gestational diabetes. He called me up at home and said, `Nita, you don't have to work anymore if you don't want to. I'll pay you.' I couldn't do that, but his kindness blew me away.”

In 1996, Jackson's new management team dispensed with her position, and, despite Jackson's pleas to stay in another capacity, Mandell moved to Decca Records, where she helped sign Lee Ann Womack, Gary Allan, and Mark Chesnutt. She then did a stint as an independent publicist before being approached by Sony in 1999 to come aboard to help lead their marketing team.

“Of course when I left Decca, I swore I'd never work for another label. Well ... ,” she says with another one of those boisterous laughs.

Nobody, however, can make Anita laugh like Will. He's a natural comic, quick with one-liners, and on a rainy summer day, members of Rebecca Lynn Howard's fan club seek him out for autographs. With a big smile, he signs for them all.

“Everything he does is funny, everything he wears,” Howard says. “One day he's on the bus, freaking out that he doesn't have anything to fix his hair with. He walks over to a mirror and is like `Oh, it's perfect.'”

That humor sustains him in a town where musicians are a dime a dozen.

“It's not just how good you are. There will always be people who are better than you,” he says. “I consider myself an entertainer. If you let the music inspire you, then you're going to make others want to hire you.”

Not that there hasn't been disappointment. There were plenty of auditions and part-time gigs before he landed his current job with Howard, one of the industry's most-promising newcomers.

His ultimate goal, signing a publishing deal, has remained elusive after more than 10 years in town and despite having a wife in the business.

“Still, it's all incredible. This whole experience is better than I ever dreamed,” he says.

Any professional disappointment for Will has been muted by the successful relationship he has built with Anita. They have been married more than 13 years and, despite hectic traveling schedules, rarely use a babysitter in raising their son, Henry, who will be 9 in October and who already has appeared in three country music videos.

“We want our marriage to work,” Will says. “We really enjoy each other and who each other is. I like her for her tenaciousness, for her shoot-from-the-hip attitude. I'm left-brained, a disorganized dreamer who enjoys laughing.”

Back at Sony, Anita returns the affection, sitting a little more forward in her chair, hands clasped on her desk, a big smile on her face.

“We have a wonderful relationship where we communicate a lot. He's following his dream. We're making our dreams come true.”

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