CANCELED: After this story was published, it was announced that Clark's April 10 show in Charleston was canceled. More info at MusicFarm.com.
In today's world of bro-country, there is a lot going against Brandy Clark. She's a woman in her late 30s and a self-identified lesbian in a genre with a deeply conservative bent that tends to favor younger women, when it favors them at all. Plus, she writes smart, traditional tunes with little of the pomp and bombast that defines modern country radio. She also manages to dig subversively into taboo subject matter like marijuana and adultery.
Despite this, Clark is doing quite all right. With her 2013 debut 12 Stories, she has helped lead a wave of intelligent female country stars like Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves toward a new vision of country music that is both evocative of the past and grounded in the tumultuous present. Musgraves, whose debut LP Same Trailer, Different Park benefited from a number of Clark co-writes, ended up being nominated for Best New Artist and winning a couple of Grammys last year. This year, Clark herself got a Best New Artist nod.
However, Clark strongly disagrees with the notion that she's some sort of country music savior. "It's always hard to know what's going on when you're inside of it," she says. "But I'd like to think I'm a small part of keeping [the tradition] of music alive."
A graduate of Nashville's music business-oriented Belmont University, Clark has spent the last 15 years working in Music City's eponymous field. She has a bevy of writing credits, often with frequent collaborator Shane McNally, for such superstars as Reba McEntire, Leanne Rimes, The Band Perry, and Miranda Lambert, making her seem very much an insider despite the seemingly rebellious nature of her songwriting.
And it's really the balance of those two things that makes Clark so fascinating. On the winsome cheating ballad "What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven," for instance, Clark captures the feverish indecision of a woman about to take an elevator to an upstairs hotel room to begin an affair with the kind of clever turn of phrase and a heart-sinking arrangement that seems tailor-made for country radio, if only it wasn't so ambivalent about the subject matter.
"Those are my favorite songs to write," says Clark. "I love split-second decisions, and I love conflict and all of the jagged imperfections of life. Historically, country music has been a truth-telling format, an adult format."
That same predilection is evident in the songs she's written for others, like Musgraves' "Merry Go Round" or the Lambert hit "Mama's Broken Heart." Despite the success of those songs, Clark insists she doesn't write with the strictures of country radio in mind. "All of the hits I've written have been by accident — they become 'commercial' after I'm done," she says. "I just try to write songs for people who don't write songs: working-class people."
That latter point is important to her. Having spent so much time in Nashville, she says it can be easy to get caught up in the trap of writing clever songs that will impress other songwriters rather than hit home with her target audience. That being said, she's also cognizant of how pivotal the critical acclaim around 12 Stories has been to the record's commercial success and eventual Grammy Award nominations. "It is what it is because of the critics," she says.
Although she ended up losing at the Grammys to Sam Smith in the Best New Artist category and Miranda Lambert for Country Album of the Year, her understated performance with country legend Dwight Yoakam of her most tender and universal ballad "Hold My Hand," itself an emotional inversion of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," was one of the clear highlights of the night. And radio play of the song skyrocketed in the wake of the awards show.
"It was a pretty surreal two-and-a-half minutes," Clark recalls in amazement. "Not only does [Yoakam] sound iconic, he also looks iconic! Looking back on it, I can see the beauty a bit more. At the time, I was just trying not to mess up."