In a 1956 interview with the Paris Review, William Faulkner told Jean Stein, “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” While his contemporaries convened in intellectual centers like New York City and Paris, Faulkner found inspiration in his own backyard, drawing from his experiences living in Oxford, MS to create the intricate world of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. That little stamp postmarked one of the most important invitations into post-war Southern life we’ve received since.
A few listens to Brandy Clark’s music reveals a similar mentality. The celebrated Nashville songwriter has long crafted songs – first for others, like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, and eventually for her own solo efforts – that serve as razor sharp slices of small town life, providing cutting commentary on heavy themes with seemingly simple lines like “Then she burnt the toast just like the day before” (on 12 Stories‘ “The Day She Got Divorced,” which was a hit for Reba McEntire). Clark, it seems, knows that the devil is in the details. She also knows that it’s the more devilish among us who have the best stories.
Clark’s Yoknapatawpha is the American small town, a now-loaded term that’s come to represent more of a lifestyle brand more than any geographic location, as back roads, pickup trucks and tailgates have been glamorized, polished to a pristine sheen and made by commercial country radio to go down as smooth as a cold Bud Light. Clark’s small towns are anything but pristine, filled with more home-wreckers than homemakers and more akin to shots of high-proof bourbon than the watered-down swill her peers are shilling.
Her solo debut 12 Stories was released to universal acclaim. Seemingly overnight, the writer behind hits like “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Follow Your Arrow” was in the spotlight, a solo artist in her own right. Now, she’s returned with her sophomore effort Big Day in a Small Town, an album that puts a magnifying glass to small-town life and establishes Clark as compelling an artist as she is a songwriter. It’s something of a concept album, grounded in a strong sense of place and driven by a narrative arc that takes listeners on a journey that truly feels, as its title hints, big. If her debut album listened like a collection of short stories, this one is her first novel.
“I think every record I make – 12 Stories was this way and this one was this way – has a loose concept,” Clark explains. “When it comes time for me to make a record, having a concept in my head helps with the song selection. 12 Stories didn’t end up being a concept album, but it helped us make the songs all kind of make sense together. So I have several concepts in my head that I eventually want to be records. But Big Day in a Small Town was one. When we wrote the song ‘Big Day in a Small Town,’ I thought I want to write a record like this, where it could all take place in a small town.”
Clark’s small town is full of characters, from the future daughter of a hometown heartbreaker (“Daughter”) to the homecoming queen (“Homecoming Queen”), but she was careful not to let her characters devolve into caricatures, balancing the album with more universal tunes that, while they could of course apply to her townsfolk, strike broader chords. “Jay Joyce, who produced the record, he was really great at saying, ‘I think that’s great, let’s do that, but let’s not keep it so on the nose. Let’s put some songs in there like ‘Love Can Go to Hell’ and ‘You Can Come Over,’ that could be anywhere,” she says. “I think that was a really smart thing, because I think you’d get a little bit tired if every song was Big Day in a Small Town.”
It doesn’t get tired, as the strongest voice represented is Clark’s own, which she and Joyce worked to make front and center. While the songs on 12 Stories were nothing short of excellent, they were songwriter’s songs, the production and spare instrumentation in service to the songs more than Clark herself. The tunes on Big Day are, appropriately, big, with a full band backing Clark and lending larger-than-life atmospheres to her similarly outsized characters.
“When we first sat down, he said, ‘You know, we’ve gotta make your record because you’re going to have to go out and perform it. If we make my record, you’re still going to have to go out and perform it.’ He is not only a genius but, as far as in the studio, is without ego and he was in service to me as the artist and to the songs,” she explains. “‘Love Can Go to Hell’ felt way more like a ballad when it was a demo and he heard something in it that I’d never heard, and that [co-writer] Scott Stepakoff had never heard. He gave it a different energy that really makes it move and took it from a song that we were maybe going to do to a song that became a centerpiece of the record.”
It was go big or go home, and appropriately so after the banner three years Clark had since releasing 12 Stories in 2013. Accustomed to cranking out hits for others, Clark didn’t feel the pressure of the sophomore slump going into Big Day like some less seasoned artists might. “I didn’t feel a pressure when I was writing, but I felt a pressure before we started making the record,” she says. “Like, okay I want it to be as good as 12 Stories but I also want it to be different, because I think that if I’d tried to make the same record again I wouldn’t have been able to make it as well. I’ve said I wanted it to be a cousin as opposed to a younger sibling..
Big Day may be a cousin, but, lyrically, it sticks close to what earned Clark so much acclaim back in 2013, drawing heavily from Clark’s own experiences. “Even when it’s a third-person song, a lot of it is my own life,” she says. “I start with part of my own life and then it will blossom into this other thing. And then if you’re co-writing, you know, you have that other person’s or persons’ experiences that go into it as well.”
It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that while most of the attention Clark has received has been for her work, she’s also had the spotlight shone on her personal life. She’s one of a small number of openly gay country artists, and she’s contributed to a number of the genre’s more progressive moments, including co-writing Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” a CMA-winning song that encouraged girls to “kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into.” The song wasn’t a huge radio hit, peaking at #10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart, but it signaled a sea change in country music, a genre long known for its social conservatism. Clark’s involvement and ensuing success earned her admiration from fans and critics well outside the typical realm of country music, and branded her as one of the genre’s most progressive voices.
“I think it’s just a natural byproduct,” Clark says of her left-of-center place in country music. “I’m not trying to make a big statement, but it does make me happy if I can further any of those things. It’s definitely a different climate than it was just a couple years ago. I’m really glad to be part of things that never happened before. That’s exciting to me.”
Clark often finds herself on the cutting edge of country, even when she’s working on projects for others. In the lead-up to releasing her own album, she contributed a track, “I Cried,” to Nashville producer Dave Cobb’s excellent concept album Southern Family, which features Lambert, Jason Isbell, and others. “I’m really proud to be part of that,” she says. “[Cobb] reached out to me and he was going to do this record about families and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it and of course I said yes. I sent him a couple of songs and he chose the song ‘I Cried.’ We did all of the recording in one day. It was live vocal with the band, and then the next day we went over to his home studio and did an interview about it and then it was just done. What he’s doing for music, not just country music but music overall, is pretty big I think.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Clark also co-wrote several tunes on Jennifer Nettles’ most recent solo album Playing with Fire, and contributed to Kacey Musgraves’ forthcoming Christmas LP. She hopes to release another solo album in the next couple of years, to play bigger venues, and, most importantly, to stay true as a songwriter while she navigates life as an artist.
“I hope I just keep challenging myself artistically to do different things but to always stay grounded in that songwriting, storytelling, truth-telling narrative, just getting that to as many people as possible,” she says.
She’s already succeeded in reaching new ears, with Big Day cracking the Top 10 on Billboard‘s Country Album Chart. She’s received rave reviews, again. And, as always, she’s done it on her own terms. For Clark’s “little postage stamp,” it’s a big day indeed.