Brandy Clark was only 5 years old when hot mud and ash began falling from the sky.
The country music singer/songwriter was raised in Morton, Washington, and she has some specific memories of the day in 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted, since the mountain is only about 25 miles south of Morton as the crow flies.
“I remember my mom waking my brother and me up and putting us in the car to go and find my dad because he was out running,” she writes via email from Nashville where she’s lived since 1998. “By the time we got home, the windshield wipers on my mom’s car couldn’t keep up with it.”
Her country music loving grandmother lived next door at the time. “My grandma was standing on her front porch with a cigarette in her lip and her hand out to try and touch the hot mud and ash that was falling from the sky. I remember her pulling her band back when the mud would hit it because it was so hot that it would burn you. Now during all of this, she never quit smoking that cigarette – I guess she had her priorities straight!”
These days, Clark’s life is pretty far removed from Morton, although she says she tries to get back to the area once or twice a year to visit family and friends. Songs she’s written or co-written have been recorded by country stars like Reba McEntire and Miranda Lambert, her 2014 debut album “12 Stories” brought her a nomination for Best New Artist at the latest Grammy Awards, and “Follow Your Arrow,” a hit song performed by Kacey Musgraves that she co-wrote won Song of the Year at the Country Music Association awards.
The latter shows at least a minor shift in what’s okay to include in country music lyrics, as it mentions both pot and same-sex relationships, and that’s part of what’s so charming about Clark’s songs. She’s part of a group of women who don’t embrace pop or bro country, and are singing and writing about the real world.
The songs on “12 Stories” include songs about people who both pray to Jesus and play the lotto, smoke marijuana or abuse prescription drugs to deal with the stresses of life, and refrain from murdering their cheating spouse because they don’t look good in orange. There’s also cheating and drinking songs – standard country fodder, but somehow Clark updates it all in a way that’s earthy and soulful, more classic than modern.
Openly gay, Clark says she’s never had an issue with her sexual orientation in Nashville, or with her fans. “I’ve not felt any backlash from people at all,” she says. “I think the media seeks stories from that angle, but that’s the only place that it is ever a focus. I don’t think it matters, and the fans have proven me right.”
Starting guitar lessons at the age of 9, Clark says she started writing songs when she was young, but she didn’t decide that it would be her calling until her first year of college. “I formed a band with my mom and some friends and became consumed with the idea of being a singer and songwriter professionally,” she says. She left Washington State at that point to study the music business at Belmont University in Nashville, and shortly after that she landed a publishing deal.
After pitching it to the majors for almost two years without success, “12 Stories” was put out by indie label Slate Creek. But the follow-up, which Clark is recording now, will be a Warner Brothers release. She sounds energized about working with producer Jay Joyce (Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Eric Church). “His studio is an old church, and the vibe is incredible,” she says. “I am so excited about getting new music out there.”
Clark says Warner has been great to work with. “They haven’t asked me to change a single thing about who I am or what I do,” she says. “I have had all the creative freedom in the world, and I’m grateful for that. I know a lot of artists don’t get that opportunity.”
She’s hoping the new tour will bring her back home. “We are putting together our fall tour dates now, and I hope that Washington State is on there. I got to play the Puyallup Fair last year with Jennifer Nettles, and it was incredible to get to perform for my home state in a venue where I used to see so many concerts.”