Published in The Daily Journal April 9, 2011.
Welcoming visitors to the huge country estate, Jaime Dudney flashes a familiar smile and asks, "Want to see my bedroom?" She adds mischievously, "It's clean."
Once considered the largest log cabin in the world, Fontanel Mansion was the former home of County Music Hall of Fame member Barbara Mandrell and her family. Mandrell, her husband, Ken Dudney, and their three children -- Matthew, Jaime and Nathan -- lived here from 1988 to 2002. It was middle-child Jaime who stood before us now.
"This place is filled with memories," Jaime Dudney said. "It still smells like home to me."
The property was bought in 2002 by Dale Morris and Marc Oswald, the management team for such stars as Alabama, Kenny Chesney, Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson. At first, the new owners weren't sure what they were going to do with the remarkable site. Some music videos, the television show "Gone County" and parts of the "Country Strong" movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw were shot at Fontanel.
Then the owners had an idea that changed the future of Mandrell's old home. Although nearby Nashville is known as Music City, the area doesn't have even one star's home that the public can visit. Last June, Fontanel was opened to the public and visitors have been flocking here ever since to tour the home, eat at an on-site restaurant and attend concerts in the outdoor amphitheater.
Resembling her famous mother, Dudney has returned home to serve as hospitality director for the property's new owners. She also has restored much of the décor to the way it was when she was growing up at Fontanel, including family photos, furnishings and memorabilia, plus many items from her mother's career.
"I lived here for 14 years," Dudney said. "I was really sad when it was sold because I no longer had my childhood home to return to. It was awful at the time. For eight years, I didn't come out here."
When she did return, Dudney was shocked to see that the family's shooting gallery had been shot up by partying country stars. "I kept thinking, 'Oh, my mom is going to be so mad.' I'm going to be grounded," Dudney said. "Then I told myself, 'Get over it, Jaime. Your mother doesn't own the house anymore."
Asked one of the most common questions -- why Mandrell decided to sell her 27,000-square-foot dream home -- Dudney says her parents put the huge property on the market to downsize. "My mother wanted to be able to clean her own home," Dudney said. "She spends about 12 hours a day now working in the garden of her Nashville home."
Set on 136 acres, the three-story Fontanel boasts six bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, two kitchens, an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool, five fireplaces, an ice cream parlor, indoor shooting range, helicopter landing pad and two-story great room with log pillars autographed by many of the home's famous guests.
"I used to do cheerleading practice in this room," Dudley said, standing in the great room. "At the time it seemed very normal. I have never known my mother not to be famous. By age 2, I had been in every state except Hawaii and Alaska. My mother played a lot of state fairs and we would wake up in the morning pulled into a different place."
A musical prodigy
Mandrell had been a professional entertainer for 39 years. "When she was just 11, she was named the world's best steel guitar player," Dudney said. "When she was 13, she was on the road with Patsy Cline, George Jones, Johnny Cash and June Carter. Patsy Cline really mothered my mom and they shared a room ... Patsy trusted this little girl to do her hair every night before they performed."
From 1980 to 1982, Mandrell had one of the top television shows -- "Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters." Mandrell and her sisters Louise and Erlene drew an estimated 40 million viewers for their weekly variety show, as compared to the 26 million that watch today's blockbuster "American Idol."
At the end of two years, Mandrell canceled the top-rated show, saying her doctors had warned that her health was suffering from the rigors of performing. Two years later on Sept. 11, 1984, Mandrell was nearly killed in a horrendous automobile accident. Mandrell and her two older children were hit head on by another car. The teenage driver of the other car was killed.
The 35-year-old Mandrell suffered lacerations and abrasions and sustained multiple fractures in her right leg, including a broken thighbone, knee and ankle. She also had a severe concussion that caused temporary memory loss, confusion, personality changes and speech difficulties. Her 14-year-old son suffered some cuts. Her 9-year-old daughter was treated and released.
After a year and a half of rehabilitation, Mandrell returned to recording and performing. But the near-death experience had taken a severe toll. It also made her re-evaluate her priorities. When she found out she was pregnant shortly after the wreck, Mandrell feared that her baby might have medical problems. Nathan, meaning "a gift from God," was born by cesarean section on Sept. 6, 1985. When doctors did a head scan of the baby, they reported that the fontanel, or soft spot in the baby's head, was a very healthy "soft and clear."
"My mother loved that word. That's why she named our home Fontanel," Dudney said.
Mandrell gave her last performance at the Grand Ole Opry on Oct. 23, 1997. "She sold all her instruments and has not played or sung since then," Dudley said. "She turned 62 Christmas Day.
"My mother and father worked hard to obtain this. Dad built it, he touched every log and mom designed it ... I'm happy to see that it's being taken care of and that people can enjoy it."