Nick Bollinger considers the small town tales of Nashville songwriter-turned-singer Brandy Clark.
Modern country is full of names that - unless you’re into modern country - you might rarely encounter, big stars though they are. But Brandy Clark was, until recently, little known even to country fans, though her music had been right in front of their ears.
The 40-year-old singer had been working in Nashville for more than a decade as a Music Row songwriter, and her credit has appeared on hits by the likes of Miranda Lambert, LeAnn Rimes and Keith Urban.
It was her rising profile as a writer that reignited Clark’s performing career. In 2013 she released 12 Songs, a stonking collection of mainstream country songs, but with a twist. One involved a gay couple’s coming out; another was a housewife’s ode to the therapeutic benefits of cannabis.
12 Songs was a big critical hit, and justly so. But her new album is clearly aimed beyond just the critics. The tunes, and to a large degree the sentiments, are the kind Nashville has been running on now for decades. These are drinkin’ smokin’ cheatin’ songs – in fact Clark has a song called ‘Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’.
Perhaps the essential difference between a country songsmith like Clark and your typical folk-rock singer-songwriter is that where the singer-songwriter tends to treat their experiences and perceptions as unique and individual, Clark knows hers are universal. And if her listeners haven’t directly experienced the things she sings about, their neighbour or cousin has. In fact, often she’s not the protagonist in these songs at all, but more often a narrator, standing to the side, giving us the lowdown on these slices of life.
Her words are cleverly constructed, but the effect is more like eavesdropping on a conversation in the supermarket. The new album’s title, Big Day In A Small Town, could describe any of the humble catastrophes portrayed in the songs. The voices are mostly those of the white working poor, and hearing these tales of money worries and broken homes I start to wonder if these voters might be tempted by Trump?
Brandy Clark’s Big Day In A Small Town might not be as confronting to conservative countrydom as her earlier album, still, it’s a classy piece of work. In an album full of great lines my favourite might be Clark’s kiss-off to an ex-husband who has just hooked up with a younger woman: ‘Karma’s a bitch so I hope you have a daughter’.
‘Ain’t we all the stars in our own soap opera?’ she asks in another song and one can only agree. As for Clark herself, she’s like a soap opera scriptwriter – which doesn’t mean her stories don’t ring true.
Songs featured: Girl Next Door, Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’, Three Kids No Husband, Broke, Soap Opera.
Big Day In A Small Town is available on Warner Music.