Barbara Mandrell understands how people could get the wrong idea about what it's like to be a country music star. After all, what the fans see is mainly the glitz: the bright lights and fancy costumes, the TV appearances and celebrity profiles.

"It all seems so wonderful, so glamorous, so lovely," she laughs. "They think we disappear right after the show, put on an ostrich-feather peignoir and are waited on hand and foot.

"It's not like that. It's hard work."

She's not kidding. Even though Mandrell -- who will perform Friday at Merriweather Post Pavilion -- has scaled back her work schedule to "a maximum of 80 dates a year," she maintains a pace that is exhausting just to hear.

At the moment, Mandrell is in Canada (Edmonton, Alberta, to be exact), winding up a 3 1/2 -week West Coast tour. Once that's done, she explains over the phone, she gets "almost 24 hours" at her home near Nashville, Tenn., then heads to New York for a round of talk shows before flying off yet again for performances Friday at Merriweather and in Atlanta the following day.

"Then I go home," she says.

Tired yet? Well, she'd better not be. "On the Sunday that I arrive home, I have two national radio shows to do that night," she says. "The next day I have a photo shoot all day, and the next day I have 'Nashville Now' to do on TNN, and the next two days I film a commercial, and then the next day I leave out on the road again.

"It's like my days off -- if you want to call them off -- are not off. There's always something else going on."

It may be a grind, but it obviously has its rewards. Mandrell's relentless energy (abetted by her boundless talent) has made her one of the biggest stars in country music. In addition to a 20-year run on the country charts, she has been the host of her own network variety show and won every pop prize imaginable, from Grammy to American Music Award to the CMA's Entertainer of the Year trophy.

Typically, she has plenty to promote these days. Not only does she have a new album, "Key's In the Mailbox," due later this month, but "Get to the Heart," her best-selling autobiography, is about to come out in paperback.

But does Mandrell enjoy that rush-rush, work-work pace? "Yes and no," she answers. She recalls complaining to her father, who is also her manager, that there just weren't enough hours in the day to get everything done.

"And he said, 'Do you remember when you weren't busy?' I said yes, and he said, 'Well, which do you like best?'

"He's very wise."

Still, keeping busy isn't as much fun for Mandrell when her work keeps her away from home. "You have to keep in mind I am not a single person," she says. "I am a wife and a mother of three. It's been a long time since I have been away from home for as long as 3 1/2 weeks, so I'm getting a little itchy and antsy to get home."

That's not the only anxiety she feels on the road, though. Mandrell was seriously injured in a car accident in 1984 -- in fact, she might well have been killed, her doctors said later, had she not been wearing a seat belt. And even though she has recovered physically from her injuries, she still finds traffic frightening.

That, needless to say, makes touring by bus something of a trial.

"I'm afraid of all motor vehicles," she admits. "I'm afraid of everything but airplanes. So yeah, I'm nervous. As you can imagine, whoever drives me has to be really a very careful driver."

For all that, Mandrell says she still feels quite at home on her bus. How so? Because the bus is familiar, and it's hers. "Like, I'm calling you right now from a hotel room," she explains. "But this is a strange room to me; I've never been in it before this.

"But when we board our bus, I swear to you, it feels just like walking in home -- this is my closet, this is my TV, this is my bed, this is my sink, you know? It's just a feeling of belonging."

Besides, she has more than enough to keep her busy. "We do everything going down the road that we might do at home. We watch television and movies, we cook. Pardon my bluntness, but I may even be shaving my legs going down the road. I mean, I do what I have to do."

Naturally, that includes work. "I also do a lot of autographing going down the road, because I have a very active fan club," she says. "Not only for fan club members -- which, I don't know, is in excess of 12,000 -- but anything else they receive, we take care of. And that's a real full-time job."

And, of course, there's always music. But what Mandrell listens to may come as a surprise, particularly to those who see country music as some sound-alike musical monolith. "My recorded music collection is so very diversified," she says. "I mean, I'm quite happy listening to a Ricky Skaggs record and then an Aretha Franklin record, George Benson and then Bill Monroe. I love it all if it's good. It's kind of like Duke Ellington said: 'There's only two kinds of music, good and bad.'

"Even my albums have always been diverse," she adds. "I believe you should treat each song with what it cries out for and means and deserves, and you treat it as the individual piece of material that it is."

That versatility is what she likes best about country music. "I've always felt that if someone says they don't like country music," she says, "it's one of two things: They either have not listened, because there is something for everybody; or they're telling us a story -- which is a nice way of saying they're lying.

"I really think there's room for all of it, if it's good. That's what makes it great."

Benefit concert

What: Barbara Mandrell, with the Hard Travelers and the Starland Vocal Band, to benefit Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

When: Friday, Sept. 20, 7 p.m.

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Tickets: $25 for pavilion seats, $18.25 for loge, $13.25 for lawn. VIP tickets, which include a backstage reception with the musicians, are $100.

Call: 730-2424 for information, (800) 543-3041 for tickets.

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