Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town
I was lucky enough to attend the Country 2 Country Festival at London’s O2 Arena at the beginning of March. During the annual three-day event, the headline acts perform in one city before hitching up their wagons and heading cross-country (and across the Irish Sea) to appear at events taking place simultaneously at venues in London, Glasgow and Dublin. For anyone with even the slightest interest in country music, it’s quite a show. Now in its fifth year, C2C at the O2 has grown considerably from fairly humble beginnings, when, in 2013, only eight headline acts played across two days in the main concert hall. Since then it has become a huge behemoth, now including more than 100 acts appearing at several venues and numerous pop-up stages within the O2 complex.
This year, it was Jennifer Nettles who had the honour of kicking off the Friday night show, and considering she was undeniably a ‘support act’ with a 6.30 time-slot, there were a surprising number of jean-clad bums on (the 20,000 capacity venue’s) seats. Nettles is something of a country legend, having formed Sugarland – a pre-Lady Antebellum crossover pop/county outfit – in 2003 and scoring four multi-platinum albums in the US, before the band split in 2010. These days, Nettles is something of a cheerleader for a new wave of song-writers working out of Nashville, helping to forge a bridge between traditional country and the genre’s newly emerging, more contemporary, voices.
It’s safe to say Ms Nettles knows how to get a country crowd on their feet and eating out of the palm of her hand. I’m paraphrasing here, but during her between-song pre-amble she said, “A lot of folks just dismiss country music as songs about hard times, cheating husbands and trucks,” adding with a wry smile, “and I’m gonna say there’s some truth to that,” before concluding, “but I don’t think there’s any other genre of music which so openly celebrates ‘real lives’. The struggles and the joyous moments that everyone, from every walk of life, experiences every day.”
Now, I’m not really sure what she said next – there was something in my eye and I could hear persistent, quiet sobbing coming from, I don’t know, somewhere – but it definitely chimes with my own feelings about some of today’s biggest country artists and the songwriters who collaborate with them. There’s something about a well-crafted country song that sets it apart from virtually every other genre of music, and especially the pop/R&B/dance hybrid jams which tend to fill the UK charts these days. The country genre has certainly moved on considerably from the questionable gender politics which advised wronged women everywhere to ‘stand by their man’ and warned every man that ‘sometimes you gotta fight to be a man’. It’s clear Nashville’s latest exports, such as Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris, want to reflect a recognisable, more forward-thinking society and project a more enlightened view of the world within their songs.
Chief amongst these, and a key collaborator on Nettles’ latest album – 2016’s Playing with Fire – is Brandy Clark, a forty-something singer-songwriter who may just be one of the genre’s most irreverent and distinctive voices. A song-writing veteran, with almost two decades’ experience working in Nashville, Clark has collaborated with some of the genre’s biggest stars, delivering sizeable hits for the likes of Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry, Reba McEntire and Sheryl Crow.
Her songs explore the same world and subject matter as many of ‘traditional’ country’s most popular themes – under-appreciated woman and hard working men, doomed love affairs, small town politics and drinking…lots of drinking – but Clark’s twists on well-worn themes are delivered unfiltered and without compromise. While her songs clearly have one foot in the past, her outlook on life (and her understanding of the day-to-day concerns of her audience) is clearly very ‘now’. She may be writing about cheating husbands and the wives they’ve wronged, but the women Clark creates for her songs won’t be ‘standing by’ their man anytime soon, they’re much more likely to knock him down with one punch, on their way to the bar, with a defiant, “Who’s next?”. Laser sharp observations, unflinching honesty, brutally frank and, most of all, very funny, this is, at its very core, just clever song-writing. Witty in a way that suggests Clark might actually have more in common with the work of Morrissey, Neil Tennant, Jarvis Cocker and Kirsty MacColl than Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. Her characters are often over-burdened, crushed by the drudgery of life, downtrodden but rarely broken. They are dusting themselves off, or soldiering on, with an empowered swagger and sass that means they may be down but they’ll never be out. Sure, we’ve seen sassy in country music before, but when Shania Twain was not being impressed much by Brad Pitt (and the guy who has to kiss his car goodnight), or when Carrie Underwood was scratching her name in the side of that douche bag’s four-wheel drive, we know it was all a front. Underwood was definitely more likely to be letting Jesus ‘take the wheel’ and singing ‘How Great Thou Art’, and Twain? Well, she, and her then hubby producer, Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, were just going where the money was. They may just have been the smartest cookies in the music business circa 1997, marrying the pop-rock swagger of Def Leppard with a bunch of killer-catchy, country-infused pop songs and creating the highly influential, and forty million-selling, Come on Over.
But there’s something believable, something wholly relatable in Clark’s writing. Her big breakthrough came in 2012, with The Band Perry’s Better Dig Two, in which the narrator is a woman whose wedding vows read less like a lover’s promise and more like a threat. She states, “If the ties that bind ever do come loose / If ‘forever’ ever ends for you / If that ring gets a little too tight / you might as well read me my last rites”, before she fantasises about the engraving on her own tombstone, “Here lies the girl whose only crutch / was loving one man just a little too much”, finally adding, “If you go before I do / I’m gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two”. Holy shit! It’s got more in common with Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads than Patsy Cline’s Crazy, but there’s no denying it’s 100% country.
It’s the more ‘light-hearted’ side of Clark’s writing that really packs a punch. Whether it be the country-feminist stance of Drunk In Heels, a standout from Nettle’s aforementioned Playing With Fire, where our heroine dismisses so-called gender equality with, “I ain’t saying that It’s easier to be a man / But let’s get real / When we get drunk / We do it in heels”.
But, perhaps understandably, Clark has kept most of her best work so far for herself, filling her debut, 2013’s 12 Stories, with, well, twelve stories of modern America, populated by a cast of dreamers, trying-to-make-ends-meet survivors and desperate, but happy, under-achievers. Highlights here include Stripes, where the song’s narrator explains the reason she hasn’t put a bullet in her cheating husband is because “The only thing keepin’ me from losin’ my head / Is I hate stripes and orange ain’t my colour / And if I squeeze that trigger tonight / I’ll be wearin’ one or the other / There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”.
But, it was with the 2016 release of her second album, Big Day in a Small Town, that Clark demonstrated that she was ready to claim her place amongst a long line of female country artists with a unique and singular voice. Here she perfects her uncanny ability to capture the spirit of Small Town life, viewed from an offbeat and decidedly unglamorous perspective. In Broke, the characters are so strapped for cash they explain, “Ain’t enough apples for the apple pie / If we had a penny we sure couldn’t spare it / Sitting on the porch drinking generic Coke /We’re broke”. And in Girl Next Door, Clark’s no-nonsense, had-it-up-to-here-with-his-BS heroine sings, “My house and my mouth and my mind get kinda trashy / I’ve never been to jail, but Hell, I wouldn’t put it past me, so… / If you want the girl next door / Some Virgin Mary metaphor / Your cardboard cut-out on the wall / Your paper or your Barbie doll / With perfect hair and a perfect dress / I’m really just the perfect mess / And I ain’t nothing less or nothing more / So, baby, if you want the girl next door… Then go next door and go right now”. Best of all, is the album’s title track, a song so over-stuffed with the everyday melodramas of everyday people, the lyric reads like the pilot pitch for the best comedy-drama NOT currently airing on US network television. Part ‘Friday Night Lights’, part ‘Roseanne’. This is a peak through the closed shutters at the complicated affaires and mundane lives of blue-collar America.
Sparse and edgy, the backing track is wonderfully uncluttered, simplicity itself, allowing Clark’s lyrics to take centre stage…and, boy, what a lyric! Big Day in a Small Town covers a lot of ground. Presenting a snapshot of the, often life-changing, goings-on taking place over the course of one day in a fairly typical US small town. Imagine if the Harper Valley PTA meeting was held on the same day as Billie Joe McAllister decided to jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge, the same day Jolene was slut-shamed at the mini-mall and Tommy, the coward of the county, finally stood up to those Gatlin boys…all in one song. There’s a concealed teen pregnancy, a premature grandma-status induced nervous breakdown, reckless drunk driving, sporting victories, unspeakable acts which occur between a married man and the (underage) checkout girl from the local store, oh, and someone shoots Bambi’s mum. Forget anything that skinny ginger kid’s got to say, now, that’s what I call a song!
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I can’t think of the last time a song with even the merest hint of country in its DNA had any lasting impact on the UK Singles Chart…but, maybe if she stops having ‘Pop’ hits, we might get the Nashville-recorded, ‘Pure Country’ album Kelly Clarkson’s been promising to make for years. I could think of worse ways to launch it.