Brandy Clark stands on stage at the Troubadour, West Hollywood’s legendary club where the Eagles formed, Elton John exploded into a supernova and John Lennon had that infamous night of malfunction that ultimately sent him home to Yoko. Not wearing a stitch of makeup, and with black leather melted over her body, Clark's 20,000-watt smile is a mixture of pure delight.
It’s Saturday night, and the following day she’ll be up for Best Country Album (Big Day In A Small Town) and Best Country Solo Vocal Performance (“Love Can Go To Hell”) at the 2017 Grammy Awards. (An indie artist working outside the major label system, Clark had four Grammy nominations, including the all-genre Best New Artist, before being signed by Warner Bros. in California.) But Clark’s delight on this dead zone of a pre-Grammy Saturday isn’t the next day’s awards show, or even headlining the Americana Music Association’s Tribute to Loretta Lynn, one of Clark’s truest inspirations. No, the sweet voiced alto is elated by the thick cane syrup pouring off Spencer Cullum’s steel as she runs through Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man” with a velvety suppleness that makes the pole-vaulting melody seem easy.
Rare is the artist more thrilled by the musicians than the spotlight, but Clark – of Morgan, Wash., (population: 900) – is indeed rare. Raised in a small logging town with a family that loved and played country music – her first concert was Ronnie Milsap at the Puyallup Fair; her grandmother thought Mount St. Helen’s eruption was her hangover from the previous night’s Merle Haggard concert; and when it came time to start writing songs, it was her mother who co-wrote with her.
Talk about bona fides? These kind of facts can’t be made up.
Sitting at a table at the storied Sunset Marquis earlier in the day, Clark laughed when she talked about listening to Boxcar Willie 8-tracks in her grandma’s car or starting a band called Sagebrush & Satin with her mom and best friend. Looking back, the wide-eyed nature of it all still strikes the woman whose songs have been recorded by Reba McEntire (“The Day She Got Divorced,” “She Got Drunk Last Night”), The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”), Miranda Lambert (“Not Your Mama’s Broken Heart”), Sheryl Crow (“Homecoming Queen”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow,” “Biscuits”).
“My mom and my best friend Rachel; It was three-part harmony – and we played a lot of fairs, singing ‘Sincerely,’ ‘Crazy’ and whatever was on the radio at the time,” she recalled happily of Sagebrush & Satin. “We did a lot of Patty Loveless, and the Judds, and ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Here,” and we did original songs.
“I wrote with my mom, who was very musical. She’d started out playing guitar, from there piano, and from there, she played harp on a harp she built from a kit. She’d help me figure out what I was trying to do. But (the band’s future) came down to the fact I was the only one who could leave.”
Not that it was that straightforward. After high school, Clark set aside music and went to college on a basketball scholarship. But she missed music, missed the creative part of writing. She came home, wondering what she was supposed to do. After hearing about Belmont College, she applied, was accepted and moved to Music City. She showcased in Belmont’s prestigious Best of the Best showcase and found herself working at Leadership Music, writing songs and looking at the life her friends, the ones with record deals, were leading.
“I noticed they had to focus on stuff I didn’t care about, on aesthetics and getting their hair done,” Clark reflected. “I had a job. I was writing songs with great co-writers like Shane (McAnally) and Jessi Jo (Dillon).”
There was one other thing – a small detail you wouldn’t even consider – under the surface. As the woman whose voice evokes Wynonna’s soulfulness explained, “I was getting OK with my sexuality – and I could have a life. Just be who I am. I thought I couldn’t be out and gay and a country performer. So there was a time I thought I didn’t want it any more.”
The trouble with a wide-open worldview or genuine creativity is that, while it may doze, it never dies. For Clark, her detail-heavy songs of outliers, small-town quirks and turning points mirror life – and the people on both sides of the margins who live it. She was the woman writer even Toby Keith had to record, but none of the artists understood those characters with the same empathy and grace.
With encouragement from her co-writers and a young manager hell-bent on helping, Clark went into the studio. Today, like the people she sings of, she works against the odds and creates heroics right where people actually exist.
Whether it’s “Homecoming Queen” realizing those glory days are long gone; the high school girl whose water broke or the mother concerned about her daughter's weight gain in “Big Day In A Small Town”; the former lover trying to tamp down desire in “You Can’t Come In”; or the threadbare single mom in “Three Kids No Husband,” Clark offers the conflicts and the triumphs for the women making due with way less than they deserve. She considers her truth quotient, explaining, “Some stories don’t have happy endings, they just end.”
Still, Clark makes her heroines interesting. Listening to the Tammy Wynette classic lament from a world weary co-dependent who won’t leave considering all the ways she’s being done wrong in “Drinking Smoking Cheating,” it’s not as hopeless as it seems. Somehow in stringing the little confessions and details together, she conjures three dimensions and a morality play without ever preaching.
“I don’t judge in my songs,” said the woman who writes of hair net jobs and generic Coke. “If there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s judge people. I’d say I’m a good girl, which is why I’m drawn to the bad girl. She’s misunderstood a lot of times. And the truth is there’s not really a lot of good or bad girls, but there are a lot of (people who are) both.”
Pausing for a moment, she considers what she’s saying. To her, flawed people are inspiring. Beyond the obvious, she recognizes the struggles and character developed. She explains, “The exterior may be a little rougher, but the interior is a little smoother 'cause they understand what it’s like to be judged. They’ve been the other and they know about not fitting in.”
She writes – farfisa churning, train beat chugging – of the jilted woman wishing karma instead of a poisoned Pabst on the cad who broke her heart in “Daughter,” gets sassy with a suitor who might want something more conventional in “The Girl Next Store” and seeks strength to put the pieces back together in “Love Can Go To Hell.” The women in her songs are more intriguing than the glitterati feasting around her in this low key, star-studded restaurant.
Without missing a beat, she confessed, “One of my best friends in high school was a bad girl: she smoked, slept with a lot of guys and didn’t care. To me, that girl was a great friend: if somebody were talking trash about me, she’d be the first one to speak up, and say ‘That’s not right’ instead of just listening silently. So give me the misfits: they’re the best people and the most interesting.”
For the woman who’d resolved herself to life as a songwriter – told over and over she sounded too much like Trisha Yearwood in the age of Gretchen Wilson – she understands being passed by. “What was I gonna do? Cry in my Wheaties about not being Carrie Underwood?”
Like so many of her heroines, Clark got practical. “Sturgill Simpson said, ‘Get in where you fit in.’ Seems like good advice.”
Los Angeles power manager Gail Gellman, who specializes in acts who defy genres from Vonda Shepard to Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles, saw an opening. Though Clark’s roots – abundantly apparent on Big Day – are country, her smart lyrics and melodic sense defy categorization.
“Brandy came out to open for Jennifer Nettles,” Gellman remembers, “and she just captured the audience. She writes so honestly, but also with so much heart, people can feel the love and the truth. It’s a very rare combination.”
Honesty tempered with kindness, Clark’s songs – like her hero Loretta Lynn – offer a reality people actually recognize. And it’s a reality, even when telling the truth, people respond to. Beyond the obvious audience of single moms, working women, outsiders and misfits, the woman with the heart-shaped face speaks insight to the unlikely.
“I get a lot of older men for some reason,” she marvels after soundcheck. “I get a lot of ‘I heard you on Don Imus. Ever since then, I’ve bought everything you do.’ Maybe it’s the traditional piece of it, or maybe it’s just this window into the world.”
That window is pretty powerful. As people struggle to find their place and understand those around them, the songwriter who uses small details to make the world more recognizable offers a map to what it’s really like in small towns, especially for women making due and making ends meet.
Jay Joyce, who produces fellow real world outlier Eric Church, was approached for Big Day. Though a rock guy at his core, he recognized Clark’s vision. “She had a story with an intention,” he responded by email. “We talked conceptually from the start, and I like that: making an album that means something instead of a bunch of songs thrown together. … Plus, Brandy’s like the Ronstadt of today vocally, someone who’s not a show-off, but whose powerful and honest. When she sings these songs, when she sings about these people, you believe her.”
Clark knew Joyce was an unlikely choice for her more country grounded songs, but trusted him to bring out the essence. “Matt King’s Rube is one of my favorite records, so I knew he understood where I was coming from. But he really was in service of my songs, he wanted to bring the best and the right things to them.
“On ‘Broke,' it was a lot more electric, and he could tell (it wasn’t working). So at one point, he says, ‘Let’s kill Satan’s orchestra,’ and brought in a banjo and a multi-instrumentalist who could add other colors. It’s like he knew.”
That knowing may give Clark’s modern take on new traditional country – think Randy Travis, the Judds, even KT Oslin – a little edge and a larger sonic impact. If Clark originally couldn’t find a label – and everyone turned her down, except for angel benefactor Jim Burnett who started Slate Creek Records to release 12 Stories – she has found people who are passionate about her music.
She’s also done what’s nearly impossible: built a career one step at a time. With a video for “Stripes,” from her debut album, she became a power force on CMT. With 12 Stories, she landed on almost every critic's Best of 2015 list, then “Letterman” came calling. There were the Grammy nods and endless road work. Through it all, the daughter of a logger who died in a work-related accident maintained that true blue collar work ethic.
“All that music being young, listening to Dolly on vinyl,” she says of what drives her, “and what it meant to me. That gets inside, and that’s what I want to do. You can’t know, can’t try to hit that bar, you can just keep writing and playing shows, trying to be the best you’ve got.
“When I wrote ‘Three Kids No Husband,’ I didn’t realize until we recorded it that it was something. Then when I played it live, and got a standing ovation, that’s when I had a sense of what it meant to people. You can’t aim for that, can’t say, ‘I’m going to write something to make people feel that…’
“But when somebody says, ‘How did you read my diary?’ Or when somebody cries over it, you realize this is important because the person feels seen, understood. When I think of the music I loved, and what it means to me, those Dolly and Milsap songs; if some of my music could mean that to someone else, well, what else is there? Especially for the people I’m singing about.”
Later that night, Clark stands onstage in a tux jacket and a white T-shirt. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a letter to read. It’s from Loretta Lynn, the night’s honoree, thanking everyone for coming, for singing, for listening.
In that moment, Clark is both a headliner and a little girl. Tasked with sharing her hero’s words, she’s also filling the shoes of a woman who told more truth and lifted up more women nobody would’ve bothered to see. By the time the steel unfurls the ride on “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Clark stands a bit taller and rises to the pride in those words. She’s proof how you get there doesn’t matter, just that you make the journey and you remember those along the way.