The Mindy McCready who died Sunday after a long string of missteps and misfortunes was a long way from the charismatic singer who took Nashville by storm in the mid-1990s.
McCready, who came to town from Florida with tapes of herself singing in a karaoke bar, gave herself one year to get a record deal. With a week left on the self-imposed deadline, she signed with BNA Records. Not long after, she was a star on the basis of her 1996 debut album, Ten Thousand Angels, which sold 2 million copies on the strength of the single of the same name and its follow-up, "Guys Do It All The Time."
Those who knew the singer in those early years recall a beautiful, determined young woman full of talent and charisma, who was both brazen about what she thought she needed to do, but also insecure.
Stan Moress, who co-managed McCready with Doug Casmus early in her career, recalls the first time he met her. "She stood in the doorway -- and charisma just exuded out of her. I called David [Malloy, producer] later and said, 'You have a star, my friend.'"
Malloy took her to meet Joe Galante at BNA, who offered her a deal practically on the spot. At the time, McCready had already been turned down by several other major labels in town -- but it wasn't long after the offer that Galante received a call from the young singer. He called her back, assuming she would be excited about the offer.
"She said, 'I think it's great that you want to sign me, but I don't know who you are. I'd like to come in and sit down and talk to you.' Here was this 19-year old girl telling a guy running some serious labels that she wasn't sure she wanted to sign because I didn't know her."
Galante was a little amused at the request, but invited McCready to come in and talk. She signed the deal and began working on that first album. A veteran karaoke singer, McCready had no experience in the studio. But Malloy said she was a natural when she went in to record.
"We spent a few months working up the songs and working on her vocals," Malloy remembers. "She had a natural ability to sing. We found a lot of great songs for her because there were not so many young blonde females out there when she was recording those first two albums."
Galante credits McCready, along with Shania and Faith Hill, as being part of a group of female vocalists who change the look for female vocalists in country music. "She was younger than all of them, so it was pretty amazing. I remember going into the studio with her. When we heard 'Guys Do It All The Time,' we felt we had an anthem."
McCready felt that her music was for the young country fan. In fact, in an interview on a documentary called "Naked Nashville," she makes a statement very similar to one recently made by Blake Shelton when she tells the filmmakers, "There are a lot of things I think Joe [Galante] is brilliant at, but there are a lot of things I could help him with because of what my age is. His age group isn't buying country music, mine is."
With hit singles and huge record sales, people were clamoring for McCready to hit the road, but she was reluctant -- she told her managers that if they could get her on the George Strait tour, she would go. Much to her chagrin, they did exactly that and she had to hold up to her end of the bargain. Moress brought in choreographer Kenny Ortega, who had worked with Madonna and Michael Jackson, to work with her.
"Can you imagine your first show ever being in front of George Strait and his audience?" Moress asks. "It gave me the shivers, I couldn't have been more proud of her for getting out and doing that. It was an astonishing show."
Galante was at that first show on Valentine's Day in St. Louis, Missouri, in front 25,000 fans. "She was on a pretty steep curve, but she managed to pull it off. Stan had rehearsed her and got her comfortable onstage. That's a frightening experience to walk out and do that, but she knocked it out of the ballpark."
After the Strait tour, McCready toured with Tim McGraw for a short time, then went on to tour with Alan Jackson.
Sadly, it was all downhill from there. For reasons painfully exposed in the "Naked Nashville" documentary -- attitude, missed deadlines and many missed opportunities -- McCready's sophomore effort didn't do as well and by the third album, BNA dropped her. She signed with Capitol Records for one self-titled album. Steve Tillisch was the recording engineer for that project, released in 2002.
"She was not only fun and light-hearted but very focused and ready to sing," Tillisch remembers. "Mindy always had drama going on, but 75 percent of the population has drama going on. There was no drama when it came time to work in the studio. Her work ethic was great."
However, the album didn't do well, and Capitol dropped her.
"When you throw a young girl into this business and the first album sells two million and all of a sudden people are clamoring for you and wanting to book you, it's a big deal," Moress says. "I guess she just couldn't hold on, and unfortunately she spiraled quickly. One can only feel sorrow for her. I think deep down she was very sweet. She often times didn't have real self-confidence, and I think that manifested itself in her attitude. She could be very gracious, but when she felt she was pinned against the wall that's when the demons came out."
The demons won on February 17, when McCready ended her life at her home in Heber Springs, Arkansas, leaving behind two children who had been taken out of her custody earlier in the week following the shooting death (still under investigation) of her longtime boyfriend, musician David Wilson, last month.
"None of us know what that kind of desperation is like," Moress says. "We don't know what was going through her mind -- obviously (she was) totally desperate, out of control. After her boyfriend [died] two or three weeks prior, and her children were taken away from her, I think it was the perfect storm."
McCready's public relations company, Music City Media, released a statement Monday, announcing her passing with "the deepest sadness" and saying that a memorial will be held in Nashville in the coming days, with details to be announced soon.