"That's Naomi Judd. Naomi Judd! Can you believe it?"
Brandy Clark is standing in the country section of East Nashville record shop the Groove, holding up a vinyl copy of Conway Twitty's 1983 LP Lost in the Feeling. On the cover, Twitty, looking dapper in a tuxedo, has a soft-focused dame with parted lips and arched eyebrows gazing longingly at him from behind — apparently, this is none other than the raven-haired Judd, nearly unrecognizable in a Nashville-goes-noir haze. "I'm going to have to buy this," she says, adding the album to her stack.
It's no surprise that Clark is the keeper of quirky factoids such as this — she could beat anyone at classic-country music trivia, 10 times over — because you don't develop one of the sharpest, most imaginative voices in the genre today without a firm grasp on its roots. She certainly knows her Judds: their greatest hits album was the first record her mother bought her as a nine-year-old girl growing up in rural Morton, Washington. With a population barely topping a thousand, it's the very kind of place that inspired her new album, Big Day in a Small Town, where kids ride their bikes to the store alone and private lives are public gossip.
"I might wear a rock & roll t-shirt from time to time, but mostly all of my stuff is over here," says Clark, rifling through the stacks — though today her shirt is solid and red, accessorized by a necklace stamped with the words "Girl Next Door," her first single from the new record. And it's true. There's nary an album or artist in here she doesn't have a comment or backstory about, or that doesn't inspire a personal tangent, from the Waylon Jennings LPs ("I'm reading his biography right now") to Loretta Lynn ("'Coal Miner's Daughter' and 'Sweet Dreams' were what made me want to be a singer and a songwriter") to a Willie Nelson's Stardust ("I remember this at my house growing up").
"My grandma used to say, 'There are two kinds of music: country and western,'" Clark says with a laugh, then frowning as she finds the entire Merle Haggard section picked dry. But she lights up again as she stumbles upon something else. "Oh, George Strait! One of my favorites. For. Sure." She flips it over and reads the entire track list out loud. Clark bought a record player fairly recently and has been working on her collection, and created a special vinyl version of Big Day in a Small Town, complete with interstitial storytelling vignettes based on things like how her uncle once shot a stoplight and ended up in jail for a night ("my grandma wouldn't bail him out"), to lace the songs together.
It's a muggy Monday afternoon, and Clark was busy writing this morning with Jessie Jo Dillon, her friend and collaborator on several of Big Day's tracks. Clark, who moved to Nashville in 1997 and worked under the radar for years as a songwriter, rarely lets a workday go by without practicing her craft, even with an album in the can. Big Day is her first LP for a major label (Warner Bros.), and her first since her solo debut, 12 Stories, shook up the country landscape with its vibrant storytelling and stripped-down production — and scored her a Grammy nod for Best New Artist. Sure, it seemed to come out of left field, but Clark had been brewing a reputation as one of Nashville's most prized lyrical weapons, writing for and with the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert. 12 Stories, so rich with cinematic scapes and brutally honest snapshots of American life, was a revelation in its rawness; a return to the days of true country storytelling, without spending a minute trying to sound vintage or look retro.
"I love a great story more than anybody. I live for it"
Though, right now, she's actually looking for something old. After she finishes rifling through the country section, Clark wanders to the counter to ask for Neil Young's Harvest, a record that Big Day's producer, Jay Joyce, recommended she listen to. "Jay said, 'I want you to listen to Harvest, because sonically I think it would work well with you,'" she recalls. "I couldn't believe I had never listened to that record, first of all, so I downloaded it and listened to it and loved it." He thought some of the same textures might work for Big Day — a subtle way for Joyce to introduce the warm, rock-forward tone he's known for.
Meeting with Joyce was Warner Bros.' only request: that Clark sit down with the producer (responsible for albums by Eric Church, Brothers Osborne and Little Big Town, among many others) and see if they made sense together. "He's done things that are amongst the best records ever made," she says. "I was scared of getting too far outside of what 12 Stories was, but I didn't want to make a copy of it. I wanted it to be a cousin. But there is fear in that; you don't want to alienate fans." They clicked instantly, and got to work.
The initial idea for the phrase, Big Day in a Small Town — which also belongs to a track on the album — actually came from something Clark saw on Facebook. A friend of Clark's had moved from Nashville to Oklahoma for a teaching job, and posted a status update that caught her eye. "She wrote, 'I washed my hair and went to town twice, now that's a big day in a small town.' And I was like, 'Man, I so get that.'"
It was when she went home for her father's untimely funeral — he was killed in a freak logging accident — that she first started thinking about the power of those small towns, and what a "big day" actually meant. The crowd that came to pay tribute to her dad was so large that they had to use the local gym. This was long before that Facebook post, back in June of 2001, and the idea has been brewing ever since. When it came to record a follow-up to 12 Stories, she knew that centering the record on these concepts was the route she wanted to take. It's about the heroes and the antiheros of real American life, the people who are back home nervously puffing a cigarette and getting ready for a long shift at the diner, while the world of Luke Bryan's candy-coated "Play It Again" tailgate party pumps outside.
"I feel like I am really good at envisioning a kitchen," Clark says. "Both of my records take place in a kitchen. On Big Day, I also thought about just being able to envision the principal's office in my high school." It's all in the details: a tired mother's smoke break that's her only solace in "Three Kids, No Husband"; a hairdresser who plays double-duty as a town therapist in "Soap Opera"; a housewife wondering what happened to the teenage girl in the sequin dress on "Homecoming Queen." Or, in "Since You've Gone to Heaven," a track inspired by her father's passing, a son selling his deceased dad's pocket watch to bail himself out of jail.
"She tops the list of the great storytellers in all of music," says Shane McAnally, who co-wrote a bulk of Big Day's tracks. "She is the voice for those who haven't had a voice in country music in a long time. She's bridging the gap between commercial music and the artistic records that rarely get heard on radio. There is no agenda here, except to get to the heart and the truth."
Country's supposed to be about stories, after all — universal truths told through snapshots of everyday life and love, with three chords along for the ride — but Clark's seen the genre shift in recent years. "Sometimes, especially in country, we try to be too literal," she says. "I remember being told when I was a staff songwriter that 'No, that person won't sing that song because they haven't lived it.' And I was like, 'Did Johnny Cash really shoot a man in Reno? I don't think so.' Art gets really boring that way. It's gotta be dramatic, it's gotta be big. And I think sometimes it's easier to be big and edgy if you are telling a story of someone else."
She rattles off a few favorite story-songs: Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler," Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA," Trisha Yearwood's "Walkaway Joe." "We start out as kids, wanting a story to go to bed," she adds. "I'm the most guilty. I love a great story more than anybody. I live for it."
"I think that Brandy — and I think she's just this way across the board — is one of the most honest people you'll ever get to meet," says Lori McKenna, who co-wrote one of Big Day's best tracks, "Three Kids, No Husband." Clark doesn't write alone for the most part ("If I'm left to my own devices, they'd all be sad or about getting stoned," says Clark).
"She's very truthful, and I think that comes through in her writing," continues McKenna. "The thing I love about her, and I try to be like this, is how she develops a character and tries to figure out how that person would feel."
When 12 Stories was released, with its tales of housewives getting high and divorcees at the dinner table, its success was particularly notable due to the climate in country radio at time — the omnipresent "bro country" — and for how Clark depicted American life with a fearless realism more about "us" than "I," singing about women who wore dirty aprons, not cutoffs. Clark thinks there's room for both, but, at the end of the day, people just want to relate to what they're hearing, regardless of gender. "I think women buy music that speaks to them," she says. "We don't care if it's made by women or men. If we don't, as women, make music that speaks to women, they aren’t going to buy it. They sure aren’t going to buy something just because someone looks good in a short skirt. In fact, they are probably less likely to buy it."
It's pretty unlikely that we'd ever see Clark in a short skirt — she generally prefers blazers over ball gowns, and also doesn't feel the need to mark how different she is from the mainstream by sporting vintage-inspired getups or Nudie suits. And though it was initially meant to be about relationships, "Girl Next Door" came to take on a new definition as she performed it.
"It started to become about me," she says. "Because I'm not really the 'girl next door' sort of artist." Even now, as female voices slowly begin to be heard on country radio, we're still used to a certain image: short dresses, hair extensions, shiny legs, done-me-wrong songs. That's not Clark. As she sings on "Girl Next Door": "Sorry I ain't sorry I ain't your Marsha Brady."
Even so, she is one of Music Row's new homecoming queens, but one who stands out for artistry and depth rather than any Barbie Doll superficiality. Clark is aware she's in the minority, far removed from the growing culture of celebrity in Nashville, a city that surges daily in status and population — yet still manages to feel at times stiflingly small.
About this, she smirks a little, speaking over her shoulder as she heads to the counter to buy that Twitty record.
"Well, as I always say, 'Wherever you're from, it's a small town.'"