Tuesday night in Nashville, a steady rain is falling, and platinum-selling country artist Mindy McCready is giving an impromptu performance in the aggressively track-lit bar of the Hotel Indigo. At the height of McCready's fame, this would have been the equivalent of Taylor Swift popping in for a set: Before Swift and Underwood and Pickler, McCready was the blond, bare-midriffed 20-year-old who helped shake the genre out of its conservative stupor. Hits like the No. 1 ''Guys Do It All the Time'' fueled double-platinum sales of her 1996 debut, Ten Thousand Angels. People called her the next Shania Twain. Now, the conventioneers downing one last Michelob Ultra in the back of the room show no signs they recognize the woman belting out Bonnie Raitt's ''I Can't Make You Love Me,'' even though the sultry, throaty voice that made her a star remains intact. As McCready put it earlier in the day, ''I don't think anybody has ever doubted that I can sing. It's more like, 'Is she nuts? Is she okay?'''
That's a fair question. McCready suffered an epic collapse after her career took off 13 years ago. Five arrests. Two stints in jail. At least three suicide attempts. Burned bridges. Tabloid scandals. An abusive relationship with a man who once almost killed her and who later fathered her now-3-year-old son, Zander. If you know McCready at all today, it is probably as the woman who says she had a 10-year affair with baseball superstar Roger Clemens, or the woman accused of leaking the Eric Dane/Rebecca Gayheart naked video, or the woman who shared a house with Mackenzie Phillips, Heidi Fleiss, and Tom Sizemore for the upcoming third season of VH1's Celebrity Rehab. If you remember her music, you've probably written her off as a lost cause. Which means that if Mindy McCready is going to make a comeback, she's going to have to start from square one.
Right now, square one looks a lot like a hotel bar on West End Avenue, located uncomfortably close to a Church's Chicken. As McCready segues into Garth Brooks' ''The Dance,'' she grips the mic with her full fist, her eyes closed, her shoulders slightly hunched like she's bracing for impact.
McCready tells her story the whole thing, for the first time while picking at a plate of turkey in the deserted upstairs of a friend's Nashville restaurant. It takes seven hours. She refuses breaks, even when offered. ''I can certainly talk about it,'' she laughs. ''Living through it was the tough part.'' At the outset, it is a familiar tale: Headstrong Florida girl got her start crooning into a hairbrush, then a karaoke machine. Took seven years of classical voice. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and clashes with her new stepfather enhanced her innate rebelliousness. She spent less and less time at home, staying with relatives, friends. By the time she graduated from high school at 16, with honors she was working in a Fort Myers sports bar. At 17, she took her karaoke demo cassette and moved to Nashville.
McCready soon met writer-producer David Malloy, and credits him with teaching her how to be a country singer. ''There was something really memorable about her voice,'' says Malloy. ''As a producer, you look for that character you'll remember the next day.'' McCready went to work singing demos in Malloy's studio. The two also fell in love. After nine months, McCready walked into the offices of RCA and got a record deal.
Ten Thousand Angels won McCready near-instant fame: She toured with George Strait, and got engaged to Lois & Clark actor Dean Cain. ''All of a sudden you sell a million records, and a million people love you,'' says Malloy. ''It does quite a number on your head.'' But McCready's next two albums were less successful. Her relationship with Cain which began in 1997, while she was still living with Malloy fell apart after a year. She claims she asked to be let out of her record contract; a Sony spokesperson says she was dropped. In 2002, McCready put out a self-titled CD on Capitol that failed to make much of a mark.
By 2004, her music career was pretty much over. ''She's the most talented person I've ever known,'' says her mother, Gayle Inge. ''She has a voice from heaven. But she is her own worst enemy.''
The next four years found her making more appearances on police blotters than on the charts, cementing her reputation as one of music's biggest burnouts. ''I have been a train wreck,'' she says. ''I've made a lot of mistakes.'' At the heart of McCready's problems was her relationship with aspiring country singer Billy McKnight, which began in 2004 and continued in some form or another until earlier this year. In August '04, she was busted using a fake prescription to buy OxyContin. She pleaded guilty and got three years' probation. In May 2005, she was arrested in Tennessee for DUI and driving with a suspended license (the drunk-driving charges were later dismissed). Also in '05, McKnight was charged with attempted murder for allegedly severely beating McCready, who says she was ''brainwashed'' and suffering from battered woman syndrome. She begged the court for leniency, and McKnight pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. McCready went back to him, and in '06, Zander was born. Inge currently has custody, and McKnight sees his son regularly. He characterizes his relationship with McCready as ''civil,'' and says, ''I've moved way on from the part of my life that was bad.''
McCready also spent six months behind bars after a July 2007 scuffle with her mother, and in fall 2008, she did another month for a probation violation involving unserved community service. ''It was the worst experience of my life,'' she says of being locked up. ''Not jail, but being away from Zander. It was the most painful thing I ever experienced.'' When discussing her legal troubles, McCready is equal parts repentant and full of excuses: The OxyContin was for someone else; her mom had locked her in the house; law enforcement targeted her unfairly because she was famous. ''I am not a criminal,'' she insists. ''I made it to 28 without getting in trouble with the law. I hadn't had hardly more than two speeding tickets my whole life. It was blown way out of proportion. Yes, I did do some things wrong. But did I deserve the kind of treatment that I got? Hell no.'' Still, she admits, ''this is my life, and I'm responsible for what happened.'' She delivers a barrage of information, every word endowed with conviction. And even as you're aware that some of it doesn't ring entirely true, you really do want to believe her.