The Thread of Me: Brandy Clark Weaves Songs and Self

It’s hard to not be charmed by Brandy Clark. Whether it’s her sly smile, her casual conversation, or her tremendous talent that gets you, you’re going to get got. People who love the country music they grew up on love her music. Even folks who don’t love country music at all love her music. Some appreciate the craft, although they might not relate to the content. Others absolutely catch her drift while, perhaps, not fully comprehending her gift. In a Venn diagram of Wal-mart shoppers and NPR listeners, Clark would be the overlap.

Though she’d already made a name for herself as a songwriter on Nashville’s Music Row by landing cuts with Miranda Lambert, the Band Perry, Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, and others, Clark debuted as a recording artist two years ago with the release of 12 Stories. The pitch-perfect set made more than a few “Best of 2013” lists, and the following year, things unfolded just as quickly and naturally. Between then and now, she’s been nominated for three Grammy Awards and three CMA Awards, winning a Song of the Year trophy from the latter for her co-authorship of Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow.” It was a big moment for country music because both Clark and co-writer Shane McAnally are openly gay, and the live-out-loud anthem was not shy about broaching the topics of weed-smoking and same-sex affection:

Make lots of noise.
Kiss lots of boys.
Or kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into.
When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight,
Roll up a joint — I would — and follow your arrow wherever it points.

Then again, everything about Clark rails against the logic of the mainstream country mechanism. She’s not only gay, but 37 years old — an age well-past what is considered prime when it comes to breaking a new artist. But her age is, ironically, one of her greatest assets. “Had it happened at any other time for me, it wouldn’t have been right,” she says. “Had I had the opportunity in my 20s, I would’ve tried to be anything to be successful. So, when it came along for me, I couldn’t be anything but who I was and that’s why it worked. And I couldn’t have written a lot of those songs prior to that. I had to live enough life to, really, be able to do all of it.”

When Clark moved to Nashville from her tiny hometown of Morton, WA, she had the same stars in her eyes that all the other young Belmont University students had. But the universe had other plans. “I had given up on it. It was the dream that I’d stopped dreaming,” she confides. Looking back from now, though, the path was perfectly clear. “I think about the songs on 12 Stories and some of the ones on the new project, and I think how frustrated I was that they didn’t get recorded. Or they would get recorded and end up on projects that got shelved, or they wouldn’t be singles, and I would be so frustrated. I knew people loved them,” she says. “Really, what was supposed to happen was that I was supposed to put them out. Because those songs are supposed to be heard. People need those songs. I know that sounds so dramatic. But, it’s true. People come up to me every night and tell me, with tears in their eyes, how much certain songs mean to them. … There was a bigger plan in all of it that I didn’t know.”

Now that the bigger plan is in motion, her list of accomplishments keeps a brisk pace and Clark is buckled up for the ride. She’s opened for Loretta Lynn at Ryman Auditorium; toured with Jennifer Nettles, Eric Church, and Alan Jackson; performed on the Grammy Awards show with Dwight Yoakam; and signed to Warner Bros. Records.

So, has she turned out to be the savior of country music that some had hoped she would and proclaimed she could be? “I remember seeing that ‘Country Music Christ’ thing and thinking, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Let’s not forget: Christ was crucified!’” She laughs. “I think I was a piece in a movement of songwriters and musicians and artists, and I just, for some reason, became one of the faces of it. I don’t think I was the only face of it.”

Even as other artists rise up to help carry the country mantle, Clark takes the expectations head on and heart full. “I definitely feel a pressure there to make great music, to make things that fall in line with what country music ought to be. And to have the stamp of approval from people like Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam… that’s pressure, because I feel like those guys have made some of the best country music — period. And I think country music is worth saving. I will say that.”

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If anyone can bring the genre back from the brink of bro-dom, it’s Clark… with a little help from folks like Ashley Monroe, Sturgill Simpson, and, of course, Kacey Musgraves. For them, it’s genuinely about the music. It’s about getting to the heart of the matter through vision and verse. It’s about finding the poetry in the people and the places that make up everyday life. It’s about telling the stories that need to be told. And it’s a skill that cannot be manufactured, only mastered. Anyone who’s heard a Brandy Clark song — from the earnest plea that is “Hold My Hand” on through the whimsical turn of “Big Day in a Small Town” — can attest that she has mastered this particular skill, bringing equal parts wit and wisdom to each work.

“I’m a good storyteller,” Clark says of her songwriting strengths, before adding, “Actually, I’ll say I’m a great storyteller. I have a real insistence on things making sense. And I feel like I have a really good gauge of like, ‘That doesn’t sound like something the singer would say.’ … But I think, more than anything, I just can bring heart to it.”

Clark thinks of her songs like chapters of a book or scenes in a movie. The lives of her characters unfold with detail and dignity, humor and heart. Because she made 12 Stories about four years ago, she’s told those tales more times than she can count. Still, she says, “I love them. I don’t want them to move away. I want them to stay in my set every night, but I’m ready for some new characters, for sure — or at least some new stories for these characters, new experiences.”

The original vision for that song cycle was centered around the life of one woman. Her latest album, untitled as of press time, picks a similar theme, while eschewing more of the same. “All the songs on this record take place in the same small town,” she says. “[It’s] a sort of celebration of small-town life. I would never want to try to remake 12 Stories because I’m so proud of what we did and I don’t think I can out-do that. And I’m not going to try to out-do it because that’s where I can get into trouble. … I am me, so the thread of me is going to run through that.”

The thread of Brandy Clark, the thing that makes her really and truly special, is that she has no idea how really and truly special she is. Of course, if she knew it, she wouldn’t be it. That’s just how humility and authenticity work.

“I think about songs that have meant a lot to me,” she says, “and I’ve always wanted to be [the one who wrote] somebody’s favorite song. … I think about ‘Crazy’ — that’s my favorite song. Two hundred years from now, people are going to be singing ‘Crazy.’ It’s never going to not be amazing. I’ve always wanted to do something like that… something that broke through, that transcended.”

And she surely will.