Country Storyteller Brandy Clark's Big Small Town Dreams Are Coming True

Her latest album, 'Big Day in a Small Town,' is a modern country triumph that celebrates flaws and mines vulnerabilities.
June 30, 2016, 3:32pm

Everyone's definition of a "big day" is different; shit, it can change on a daily basis. Maybe you saw something crazy on the subway or your smoke alarm went off, or you ate the best hot dog you have ever had in your life. Maybe you got a big promotion or did something life-changing, or helped someone in need, or learned something new. Thanks to the recent release of her sophomore album, Big Day in a Small Town, country singer and songwriter Brandy Clark has been having a lot of her own big days lately. Clark’s been filling just about every day with a stop at a radio station or a show or—when she can find the time—a little bit of writing.

After all, Clark found her first successes in Music City from the writing room, penning hits like Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two.” The witty wordplay that populated most of her cuts on mainstream country records took the spotlight on her own debut, 12 Stories, which she eventually released with Texas-based label Slate Creek Records. Building her name as a writer and performer on the album’s strong storytelling and classic country sound, 12 Stories found breakout critical acclaim. It eventually earned Clark a re-release with Warner Brothers, Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best Country Album, and even a few radio spins of album single, “Stripes.”

If

12 Stories

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established Clark as a storyteller,

Big Day in a Small Town

makes for poetic (and at times brutally honest) evidence of the empathy that comes with that territory. The record finds a relatable a thread running through tales of struggling single mothers (“Three Kids, No Husband”), stories of loss (“Since You Went To Heaven”), and biting bless-your-heart kiss-offs (“Daughter”). Clark adds an added edge thanks to Jay Joyce, the rock-bred producer behind hit records from Eric Church, Carrie Underwood and Little Big Town, and the result is an enduring charm with the slight pivot into new ground instrumentally.

I caught up with Clark on the phone one morning to hear about the makings of the record and the personal history that helped define Big Day’s small-town theme.

Noisey: You worked with Jay Joyce on this album, which was a bit of a shift for you. Tell me about working with Jay—I’ve read that he had a couple of records in mind as inspiration when you two began working together.
Brandy Clark: The one album he mentioned to me was Neil Young’s Harvest, which I had never listened to top to bottom. I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t. He said that there were some things sonically on there, some sounds, that he thought would work well with what I was doing. I listened to it, and then I really knew then that his sensibilities were going to work well with me.

I need somebody who’s going to push it in a way that’s different than I would, and Jay is that guy. He does come from a rock background, and so there are things that he hears that I would never hear. The song “Love Can Go to Hell” is a really great example: When Scott Stepakoff and I wrote that song and we demoed it, it felt like a ballad, a down-the-middle song. Jay heard something in that, and he took it and didn’t even change the tempo but he gave it so much of a different energy. He changed the time signature between the verse and the chorus, he came up with that banjo part that is so signature. He just makes things special.

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“Three Kids, No Husband” is one of the songs on the record that, to me, highlights a capacity for storytelling and building characters that I see a lot in your songs. Was this based on a person?
I wrote that with Lori McKenna. She came in and said she had been watching me on YouTube talking about another song I had written on my first record. She said I was talking about that song and I said, ‘The person that inspired this song has five kids and no husband,’ and she said she thought that would be a great song. She actually said ‘I think five kids would be a little much.’ Which is funny, because she has five kids. [Laughs]

I don’t remember her and I talking much after that. We didn’t talk about a specific person. Who doesn’t know somebody in that struggle? It doesn’t even have to be a woman. There are a lot of guys who are raising kids on their own, and it’s not always that the relationship ended in divorce. Maybe they lost somebody. I knew that when we wrote it, but I really discounted that until I started playing it live. The way that song hits people, it reminds me that we all know somebody like that.

You highlight a lot of relatable, everyday characters like that. Is that something you approach deliberately when you’re writing?

I definitely look to do it, because I feel like there are certain people whose story isn’t being told. I feel like it’s my job to tell their story. I worked for a long time as a songwriter just trying to get noticed, trying to make a difference. [I was] really just trying to write songs to impress other songwriters, when I look back on it. When I stopped doing that and just started writing songs that people who can’t, or don’t, write songs would write, I think that started to resonate.

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I remember thinking, ‘I want to write the song that the girl who’s the teller at the bank would write if she wrote songs, or the man who’s checking out groceries at the grocery store.’ Because that’s the story that needs to be told—that it matters, and those are the people who need music to get through the day. I mean, we all need music to get through the day, don’t get me wrong, but they need to feel like somebody hears them and understands, or at least sees what they’re going through. I think about in my own life, there are songs I hear that hit me and they make me feel a little less alone in whatever my experience is.

The first single from the album, “Girl Next Door,” struck me the first time I heard it because as much as it seems like it was written about something else, it definitely echoes the expectations for female country stars right now. Where did the theme of that song originate?
It came from something that one of the co-writers, Jessie Jo Dillon, said. She’s kind of a wild child and a lot of fun. She was dating a guy who liked that when he first started dating her, but as they were together for a little bit he wanted her to be a little bit more demure and a little more the girl next door. She said, ‘I just want to tell him, brother, if you want the girl next door, go next door.’

For me, the place where I connect to that song is where you’re talking about—as an artist, I’m not necessarily the cookie cutter of what a lot of people think a female country artist ought to be.

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What do you feel like the cookie cutter expectation is right now?
I think [the expectation] is to be the perfect woman. One thing I’ve always loved about country music historically is that I feel like it really celebrates flaws—things that aren’t perfect. Women used to sing about their imperfections.

I was listening yesterday to some Reba songs and in one of those songs, she took on the role of being the cheated-on, and in a real vulnerable way. Now, it seems like the only way to take that on is, ‘Well, if you do that to me I’m going to slash your tires and bust out your windshield.’ So I think there’s this girl-next-door: the perfect hair and the perfect body and the perfect face and saying the perfect thing all the time. And that’s impossible because, you know, nobody’s that.

We spoke about a year ago, and you said you’d never had any issue with being openly gay in the country music business. Since then, though, we’ve seen headlines about supposed clashes over “Girl Crush,” and TV shows like Nashville alluding to a clash between country music and LGBT artists. A lot more has changed in the last year sonically, too. Chris Stapleton is winning all of the awards, we’re seeing a lot more of an embrace of the classic country sound on radio. Are things shifting in country—whether that’s in what’s considered “taboo” or in what sounds people are open to hearing?

It’s great that you’re asking me this a year later, because now I have gone out and done a full radio tour and there’s not a part of the country I haven’t hit, other than Alaska and Hawaii. I can say without a doubt that I haven’t hit any prejudice in that way, as far as sexuality. I think a lot of times we underestimate people. I definitely did. I thought I would experience some prejudice, and I haven’t—at least not to my face.

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[Laughs]

The only thing I ever get from fans—and I don’t get a lot of it—but I’ll get someone saying, ‘Hey, thank you so much for being out, but also for not making a big deal out of it and just living your life.’ That always makes me feel good, like I’m doing the right thing just by being me and not being secretive yet not hitting people over the head with an agenda that isn’t music.

I think [in country radio] being musically left of center is probably a little harder than your lifestyle being a little left of center. [Laughs] Change is slow in that way. My song on the radio; radio has embraced it. It’s been a slow go, just because the charts are slow right now, but [my music] is a little different than a lot of what’s out there. I find that people are receptive to that.

You hear a lot about small town life in country music, but this is a record that really embraces the quirks of small-town life without dipping into stereotypes or bemoaning its shortcomings. Where did you find that theme?
Jay said, ‘I really want us to work together, but I want a reason. I don’t want to just make a record because we have ten really good songs.’ So I shared a couple of ideas with him, of albums that I would love to make. For me, even if it doesn’t end up being a concept album, it makes a better record if I’m thinking like it’s a concept album. So he liked the idea, but he said, ‘Why would you want to make a record called Big Day in a Small Town?’

I told him that I love small towns, that I’m from one. He asked what I loved about small towns, and I said, ‘I love that everybody knows everybody, the town shuts down for football games…’ And he says, ‘Yeah, but why do you really love small towns? Why do you love your small town?’

I wasn’t a kid who grew up hating living in a small town—‘Oh I don’t like small towns, they’re small minded.’ That was never me. But I really realized small towns were special when my dad died. He was killed in a logging accident. I was in Nashville and I went home for the memorial service. They had to have it in a gym because so many people came—and it wasn’t the first memorial service or funeral I had attended in a gym. It hit me that this only happens in a small town. Even though you live around fewer people, you have a chance to touch more people. So that, to me—and I would have never really put my finger on that, had Jay not pushed me and asked these questions—that is what’s special about small towns. When I told him that story, he said, ‘That’s the reason. That’s the reason to make this record.’

Dacey Orr is slashing tires on Twitter.