Out country hyphenate Brandy Clark brings her brand of music to Fort Worth
Perhaps more than any other genre, country music can provide a showcase for a songwriter’s chops. Take, for instance, Brandy Clark. The 41-year-old Washington State native started her career in a band she and her mom formed when Clark was just a teenager. She briefly traded the stage for the court when she devoted herself to her college basketball team (she was a shooting guard), but the siren-song kept calling. So she put hoops behind her.
“I remember telling my coach I was gonna quit,” she says during a recent phone conversation. “I told him and left. And I bought a new guitar on the way home.”
Clark has been crafting country music ever since. And when she takes the stage at the Live Oak Music Hall in Fort Worth on Saturday with rising star Charlie Worsham at her side, fans will be treated to someone who is well on the way to mastering her craft.
As a songwriter, Clark stands alongside names like Reba, Barbara Mandrell and Kacey Musgraves (with whom she collaborates frequently). As a performer, she can make even the drabbest concert hall shake like a backwoods party barn. But it wasn’t always like that.
“I moved to Nashville thinking I was a really great songwriter and realized I wasn’t,” Clark says. “I needed to get better. I wrote a lot of bad songs. Then some good songs. Then some great songs. Then I got a publishing deal.”
The deal was no magic bullet. Clark still had to keep her day job, and her songwriting sensibilities — influenced by the Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn records her parents used to play — weren’t quite in line with the exaggerated pop focus of modern Music Row.
“People I saw who were successful had different priorities than me,” she says. “My priority has always been to write great songs. I’d love to write somebody’s ‘Crazy.’”
She almost gave up. “I wrote for years and years,” she says. “I started to think maybe as an artist it’s not gonna happen for me.”
But in the meantime, she wrote or co-wrote some of the best songs of the modern country era. Songs like “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which Clark co-wrote with frequent collaborator Shane McAnally (with whom she co-composed Moonshine: That Hee-Haw Musical, which debuted at the Dallas Theater Center in 2015) and Musgraves, which became a hit for Miranda Lambert; Reba McEntire’s “The Day She Got Divorced” and Wade Bowen’s “Songs About Trucks.” Clark and Musgraves also collaborated on Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” an open-minded, open-hearted tune that cemented Musgraves in the vanguard of country, alongside the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
Clark wrote her first album, a stunner called 12 Stories, but nobody would pick it up. Finally, Jim Burnett of Slate Creek Records (based in Frisco) signed her. “About the time I had given up, that opportunity presented itself,” Clark says. “It’s amazing how fast I was right back in it.
The highlight of 12 Stories is “Stripes,” a saucy, hair-tossing foot-stomper in which a pissed-off woman debates revenge on her cheating partner. I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color / And if I squeeze that trigger tonight / I’ll be wearin’ one or the other, she sings. The song is quintessential Clark — heartache with a twist, a smart look at the harder edges of life.
“I think historically, country has been truth-telling music,” she says. “It’s the adult format about real truths. When you hear the greats like Merle and Dolly, the great singer-songwriters, you hear that.”
12 Stories was nominated for several Grammys and CMA awards, clearing the path for Clark’s follow-up, Big Day in a Small Town — an album that follows the stories of small-town characters like the hairdresser, the football hero, the homecoming queen. Full of cocky rockers, Big Day takes on the country tropes of disappointment, heartache and big dreams in a little place, all with a refreshingly defiant backbeat. Clark’s small-town sadness often comes out as bad-assedness. If you want the girl next door, she sings, go next door.
Even the requisite C&W pain comes with phrases that turn on a dime. Since you’ve gone to Heaven / The whole world’s gone to hell she sings in “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” a song about a woman whose husband just died.
“I loved heartbreak songs long before I even had my heart broken,” Clark explains. “You know, like Patsy Cline — she had such an ache in her voice that most people have somewhere in their heart that they don’t get to express.”
Also nominated for a couple of Grammys, Big Day stands as a rarity in the pantheon of sophomore efforts. It’s smarter, sharper and sassier than its predecessor — which itself was darn good — and also marks a new level in sophisticated songwriting.
That’s not to say that kind of cerebral approach will be worth a whit at the Fort Worth show. When asked what fans can expect when she takes the stage, Clark has a simple answer. “Country music. The one thing you’re gonna take away is it’s a really good time.”
It’s pretty much the only answer she needs.
— Jonanna Widner
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 28, 2017.