Country Music

Small-Town Girl Brandy Clark Makes Big-City Country Music

Small-Town Girl Brandy Clark Makes Big-City Country Music
Photo by Pamela Littky/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records
Photo by Pamela Littky/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records
Since at least 2011, Brandy Clark has been one of the most criminally underrated artists in Nashville. With a hand in smash hits like Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Kacey Musgraves’s “Follow Your Arrow,” Clark has staked a reputation as one of the city’s most capable storytellers, penning vividly written tracks that offer stark and unflinching commentary on scoring touchdowns, nervous breakdowns, small-town gossip, love, and loss.

In June 2016 Clark released Big Day In a Small Town, the highly anticipated followup to 2013’s critically acclaimed 12 Stories. Despite landing on nearly every country music critic’s “best albums of the year” list, Clark’s second full-length album earned her a Grammy nomination in the Best New Artist category but failed to make any real impact on country radio. Nearly a year after its release, Clark is understandably feeling a little disappointed in the way that things panned out for what is arguably her best album to date.

At this point, though, she's got a lot to be grateful for, country radio be damned. “I put a lot of effort into a radio push on this record, I had the opportunity to work a single, and it broke the Top 40,” Clark says. “Obviously, I wish I was talking about a Top 10 single, but that’s really been my only disappointment. I love the way it’s been received by critics and fans. It’s been great that people have embraced some sonic differences from the first record to the second.”

As Clark sees it, though, country radio doesn’t really have much of a choice in playing sonically diverse music. As she notes, radio playlists are increasingly smaller, which makes it sometimes impossibly difficult for a new artist to get any kind of airtime. “The playlists are really tight, and I think my music is polarizing,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to make any other kind of music, so maybe I’m not the safest artist to play on the radio.”

When Clark says that her music is polarizing, she means that on multiple levels — her songs are rough around the edges both sonically and in terms of subject matter. Tracks like “Three Kids No Husband,” written from the perspective of a single mother, and “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’” don’t sound much like the hyper-polished ballads that have scored Clark’s contemporaries' major successes. “The subject matter is a little bit polarizing; I think musically I lean a little more traditional with an edge,” she says.

That may also have something to do with the fact that country radio has made major shifts in recent years to attract a perpetually younger audience, which maybe wasn’t a good thing. A noted encyclopedia of the genre’s best lyrics, Clark grew up in a time when country music and all its subtly suggestive innuendo were strictly for grown-ups. “Country music ain’t for kids, even though I listened to it as a kid,” she says. “I think it’s adult music, traditionally and historically. I mean, look at Merle Haggard’s ‘Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room Tonight." He’s singing “let’s play the wedding games we played on our wedding night.” That’s the country version of ‘Let’s Get It On.’”

It’s no surprise, though, that Clark’s music has found an audience outside of what has traditionally been “country music country.” Instead, she’s finding bigger success in urban markets where diverse smatterings of country music fans are practically begging for a more traditional sound. “I just played a sold-out show in New York and the last three times I’ve been here, it’s been sold out,” she says. “My five biggest markets are Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta. Those are all big cities. Maybe it’s true that country fans don’t live in the country anymore.”

In Texas, and Houston specifically, getting Clark’s music on the radio came a little easier. According to Clark, 93Q’s Johnny Chiang and Christi Brooks have been fiercely supportive of her work. “They went out on a limb for my single in Houston. The people that have believed in me in radio believed big,” she says. “I just haven’t had enough believers to push me over the edge.”

She also has hope that as more “alternative” country artists get exposure, they’ll find an audience in mainstream country’s fans, and there’s plenty of empirical evidence to support that assertion. “He gets talked about a lot now, but Chris Stapleton is a great example. I remember seeing him years ago and thinking that it was a tragedy if the world doesn’t hear that voice,” she says. “But people can only like what they have a chance to experience. If you like ice cream and you only have access to vanilla, you’re gonna stick with that. If you have six or seven choices, though, you might not eat the vanilla. Or maybe you do, but at least not every day.”

Despite country radio’s near refusal to cooperate, it’s still been a couple of big years for a small-town girl like Clark. Hailing from Morton, Washington — population 900 — she is one of Nashville’s most respected songwriters. And as she’s gotten more and more famous, she’s still maintained those connections to Morton, so much so that the artwork on the Big Day In a Small Town cover features images of her hometown.

When she returns home, though, she realizes that the ecosystem of a small town never really changes, and neither does the desire to be remembered well where you’re from. “There’s nobody you want to be more proud of you than your hometown. You can do a lot of things, like perform on the Today Show. I’ve done that,” she says. “It’s awesome when Hoda Kotb tells you you should win a Grammy, but it feels even better when your high-school teacher texts you and tells you that they’re proud of you.”

And regardless of whether or not she’s the next big thing in Nashville, the ties back to Morton are strong, but they don’t necessarily promise that she is, as Miranda Lambert might say, famous in a small town. “Everybody’s famous in a small town; I’m kind of a big deal there because I’ve had a successful career, but I’m no more a big deal than last year’s football star,” she says. “Everybody’s kind of famous; you just hope you’re famous for something good.”
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Amy McCarthy is a food writer and country music critic who splits time between Dallas and Houston. Her music writing is regularly featured in the Houston Press and has also appeared in Texas Monthly, Salon, VICE, Playboy, and Pitchfork.