While she’s been in Nashville for some 20 years now, a songwriter of real talent for dozens of stars who also happens to have two superb albums of her own, Brandy Clark is from a small town in Washington state, Morton: population in 2017 of 1,159.
No, that number is not missing another digit: one thousand, one hundred and fifty nine.
It’s exactly the kind of place – with all the contradictions and myths and pleasures and horrors of the tiny, tidy places away from the cities - that could have housed any or all of the stories on her 2016 album Big Day In A Small Town.
It’s extremely unlikely that you have been to Morton, and unless you are familiar with the history of logging towns in the Pacific Northwest, it’s almost as unlikely that you’ve even heard of it. But a quick online dig (I tell you man, research - it’s the bomb!) reveals that one of its recommended watering holes is the Bucksnort Pub.
Who wouldn’t want a snifter at the ‘Snort? A beer at the Buck? So Brandy Clark, how good is the Bucksnort Pub?
“I don’t know that I’ve been to it,” she says after an extremely long pause, too polite to say whatcha talking about Willis, I’ve not lived there for decades. “I know there’s the Haps, the Tall Timber, the Moose Lodge. The Bucksnort might be new since I left there, but I can tell you the little bars of Morton are really great.”
And if you were to find Clark leaning at the bar of the Moose Lodge (“Great place to hang out, karaoke is awesome and drinks are reasonably priced!” says one Facebook recommendation.) what would you order her?
“You know, I’m a simple drinker, I like a vodka soda myself. But I’m sure they can do anything there, and probably put more liquor in it than most places,” she says. “From what I remember the Moose makes strong drinks.”
Well thank you. After all, who doesn’t like a free pour bar? It would certainly go down a treat with some of the people who populate a Brandy Clark song: the regular folks with nothing-to-write-home-about jobs and mounting bills, the working single mothers “getting hammered on Alabama Slammers” or the working stiffs who have been known to sink a few, rack up a few lines or pop a few pills.
I tell her that I listen to a lot of pop and rock, hip hop and R&B alongside my country intake and I reckon there are more references to alcohol and drugs in country music – in particular the kind of traditional and alternative stuff you won’t hear on the radio, - than the other genres put together.
What’s that about? Is it because there’s less expectation that radio will play you so less need to cater for it and you can simply tell the truth?
“That is what country music is to me, that Harlan Howard quote that country music is three chords and the truth. I believe that. That’s the county country music I loved growing up, that’s the kind of country music I’m going to write,” Clark says. “To me country music traditionally is a truth telling music, it’s an adult music form. I used to joke that I would get a T-shirt that said ‘country music ain’t for kids’.
“I put alcohol in songs because I see a lot of drinking. I put cheating in songs because I see a lot of cheats. I don’t have any judgement over those two things but when I try to write something that doesn’t have a grain of truth in it for me, they are never very good. I am best when I can write a real story.”
While her first cut that made #1, Better Dig Two by The Band Perry was pretty frank for a hit record, has she you encountered resistance from producers/A&R types to picking up her songs for their artists because of their topics and frankness?
“I’ve always been that writer known for writing those songs. When I get an outside cut it’s because somebody was looking for the same,” Clark says. “If they are looking for that down the middle, commercial radio hit, I am not the writer they are going to call. They are going to call when they want something edgy or something real country.”
As those who come knocking on her door would tell you, the defining characteristics of a Brandy Clark song are that you will be singing along by the second, or at most third listen, and with these characters there is no judgement from her. The first can be put down to talent and learned skills; the second is a choice. Is that because these characters are people she understands, or sympathises with, or could have been
“A lot of them are people who I could have been but you know my first publisher told me, and you saying that makes me believe that it’s true, some writers have the gift of melody, some writers have the gift of lyric; your gift is different, I think your gift is really empathy.
“That was such a compliment. I didn’t take it as one of the time - I thought I want to be a great lyric writer, I want to be a great melody writer - but I am not a very judgemental person to begin with and I really think in art, and I think about TV shows I love or movies I love, there is not judgement, there is just a story. I love a story that shows all of it, including the flaws.”
As much as Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline, crucial parts of her singing and songwriting inspirations – and she really is a fine lyric writer and melody writer by the way - Clark cites The Sopranos as hugely influential because of its frank and essentially non-judgemental portrayal of characters.
“I realised that one of the reasons people love that show was because it had an essentially flawed lead character, and we are all essentially flawed, so what I try to do in my story songs is not pretty judgement on the character. I’m just telling a story.”
The kind of you might tell, or see lived out, at the Moose Lodge, the Bucksnort Pub, or any watering hole just down the road from you.
Brandy Clark, and Tenille Townes, Lindsay Ell and Devin Dawson, will play the Factory Theatre, Sydney tonight, March 21, and The Abbey, Canberra, on Friday March 22.