Drinking, Divorce and Gettin' High: Brandy Clark Wrote The Best Country Album of the Year, But Is It Too Hot for Nashville?

In the world of Brandy Clark's debut album, men and women cope by cheating, carousing, pill-popping, drinking, and playing the lotto.

Sep 30, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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Somewhere around track 3 of my first listening to Brandy Clark's "12 Stories," I sent the following email to her representative:

"OK, I'm halfway through and I'm totally obsessed with Brandy. Would love to set up an interview ASAP." 

The 12 songs on this near-perfect album are just the kind of classic-with-an-edge country I'm a total sucker for -- think "Earl Had to Die"-era Dixie Chicks meets Loretta Lynn at her most feisty. As I described her to my co-workers, "She's a country singer whose song are all about like, taking drugs and killing dudes who cheat on you and stuff."

A songwriter for 10 years whose tracks have been recorded by the likes of Miranda Lambert and Reba McEntire, the songs on Clark's debut album are largely the songs that no one else was willing to record, due to their subject matter which includes drugs, violence, infidelity and divorce. "Take a Little Pill," her song about prescription drug abuse and addiction, is one she says "everybody loved, but nobody would record." 

So what draws the singer songwriter to edgier material? She's a storyteller at heart, she says, and she's especially drawn to flawed characters and "twisted tales." But she emphasizes that nothing on her album is make-believe -- the people she's singing about in "12 Stories" are real, people she and her co-writers know and love, whose stories aren't often told.

"Like with the cheating element, I think that's everywhere. I think that when you’re a kid, you have this picturesque image of what your life is going to be and then you get in the middle of it and it’s not that. Not that I’m condoning cheating, but you have commitments and reasons why you stay in a marriage or relationship, and then it’s, 'How do I survive my life here?' I think the songs are a lot about coping mechanisms whether it be getting high or cheating."

In the world of Brandy Clark's debut album, men and women cope by cheating, carousing, pill-popping, drinking, and playing the lotto. Or, as in her song "Get High," they wrap up a long day of marking items off the to-do list by rolling a fat blunt at the kitchen table while their kids are asleep. (The chorus: "Life will let you down/Love will leave you lonely/Sometimes the only way to get by/Is to get high.")

"My songs are meant to give a voice to women who otherwise don’t have one," she says, clarifying one of the things I love most about the album.

Songs like "Stripes," in which the only thing keeping a woman from pulling the trigger on her cheating lover is the threat of unflattering prison outfits, espouse a special brand of take-no-shit feminism that cuts straight to the heart of gender politics without any of the academic wrappings. Or "Crazy Women," which reminds us that ex-wives and old girlfriend, so-called "crazy women," are actually caused  "by crazy men."

It's an attitude as classic as Clark's song structures, which are far enough away from the current pop-country trends to land her in the "alternative country" category on the CMT website, where she's been named one of the "Women of Country" for 2013.

Although she came of age in the pop-country 80s, her musical tastes were shaped largely by her grandparents' classic country tastes, as well as the movies "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Sweet Dreams." Her style of songwriting harkens back to the Tammys, the Patsys and the Lorettas, whose song "The Pill" Neko Case recently called "the punkest song ever recorded."

It puts Clark in a little bit of a strange place, teetering between two genres, the Nashville insider whose album isn't likely to get much airplay in her own industry.

"This is cable TV, and my record is HBO and Showtime," she explains. "So a lot of those songs that are HBO and Showtime, you can’t play them on ABC. But you still like to watch those channels! And there are a lot of people that want to hear that subject matter."

And thanks to the dedicated efforts of those who want to hear that subject matter, "12 Stories," the record "everybody loved but didn't know what to do with it," will be available for purchase on Oct 22. I, for one, hope it finds its audience. Songs this good deserve to be heard.