Brandy Clark: Country’s New Queen of Small-Town Storytelling
Brandy Clark’s relationship with her 900-person hometown is honest. There’s deep affection, some regret and a few painful memories. She talks of Morton, Wash., like a mother speaks of a daughter among good company: with loving candor.
“It’s where some of my best memories and best friends will always be,” Clark says, giving a warm, dimpled smile moments before describing how it was difficult to return home for a long, long time. The songs on her new Big Day in a Small Town album aren’t directly borrowed from her hometown’s bulletin, but the overwhelming sense of small-town malaise that drapes her follow-up to 12 Stories is unique to her raising. One fights an urge to compare it to Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park, but with so many of the same songwriters (including Shane McAnally and Clark) on both albums, you eventually give in.
“Twenty-eight shouldn’t look this old / But the last ten years sure took their toll,” she sings during “Homecoming Queen.”
“Somebody wrecked a pickup / Somebody scored a touchdown / Ah, it’s a big day / In a small town,” she adds with ironic dismissiveness during the title track. The hopes and struggles of a blue collar community populate other songs. There’s little glory, but plenty of truth in her songwriting and storytelling.
The biggest advice Jennifer has ever given me honestly was, ‘Brandy, you can wear anything you want. You’re an artist.'
“I never hated it, but I probably didn’t realize how special it was until my dad died,” Clark says of Morton. She’ll go on to describe a logging community wrecked by the changing economy. The 38-year-old singer grew up three miles outside of town, next to her grandparents and a river. Woody Clark was killed in a logging accident the July before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“All of that (the 9/11 attacks) happened and I remember thinking, ‘Since my dad’s died, the whole world’s gone to hell,’” she says, quoting “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” the semi-autobiographical album closer. Around then her view of her hometown turned from one of casual indifference to genuine love and appreciation. However, it also became difficult to return to those memories.
“I went back to go to his memorial service and they had to have it in a gym because so many people came," she recalls.
“Soap Opera,” “Homecoming Queen,” “Broke” and “Three Kids No Husband” are four songs that reflect who Clark is and where she came from. The latter is a devastating, inspirational ballad that elicits a standing ovation every time she plays it live. Lori McKenna helped her with this song, introducing the idea after watching Clark talk about meeting a single mother with five kids from a YouTube video.
“It wasn’t just a single mom. I thought about single dads I’ve known, to carry all that weight on their shoulders and what a heroic thing that is to do,” Clark says. The “Girl Next Door” singer has no children of her own, which makes her genuine empathy all the more surprising. Although, maybe not?
“Sometimes you can tell a more vivid story if you’re looking at it, versus if it’s right in here,” she says.
The song and others like “Broke” have become much more popular since Jennifer Nettles tapped Clark to open several tours and write nearly half her Playing With Fire album. 12 Stories may have gathered critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination, but it didn’t exactly set her up for life financially. It's tempting to look at her relationship with Nettles as a sort of mentor relationship, but that’s inaccurate. They’re friends and like-minded artists.
“The biggest advice Jennifer has ever given me honestly was, ‘Brandy, you can wear anything you want. You’re an artist,’” Clark says, laughing.
Still, one finds similarities when listening to these two albums back to back. Both celebrate the working mother in very different ways. Nettles chooses the first person, creating raw, almost shocking stories of a search for identity. Clark steps back, delivering her songs in a third person or detached first person narrative. A delicate ballad called “You Can Come Over” is one exception that shows vulnerability. But there’s no sense that great lyrics like those found in “Daughter” came from her experience:
“But I hope you have a daughter and I hope that she’s a fox / Daddy’s little girl – just as sweet as she is hot / She can’t help but love them boys who love to love and leave them girls / Just like her father / Yeah, karma’s a bitch – so I hope you have a daughter.”
Jay Joyce produced Big Day in a Small Town. Clark says she worked with him at the suggestion of her new record label, Warner Music Nashville, but had always dreamed of doing so. Joyce is know for producing raw, first take albums and indeed the credits for each song on this album could be jotted down on a Post-It note. “You Can Come Over” was a first-take vocal, which Clark admits was frightening. Other songs lack the noise that so often crowds a vocal performance.
Clark's debut single on Warner Music Nashville is "Girl Next Door." It currently sits just inside the Top 40, but is finding faithful ears at any station giving it airplay. Critical acclaim comes easy for Clark. Commercial success has been more difficult thus far, and she admits to feeling some pressure with the release of Big Day in a Small Town. That pressure didn't steer her decisions on the album, however. While there are more radio friendly songs on this release than the last, few fans will accuse her of selling out. She managed to stay true to her artistic impulses, give fans something new without stepping too far from a lane she's spent years paving and (potentially) please the masses. It's a balancing act most newcomers can't keep up, but Clark is in most ways more seasoned vet than country rookie.
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