Titled like a nod to Salinger or a year-end anthology, Brandy Clark’s debut album 12 Stories begins with a promise, as well as a reminder of what country music has always claimed, and lately, often, failed, to do. It’s stories, not anecdotes, not scenarios, not atmosphere that drives the genre—but real stories, rife with complex characters engaged in complex relationships, heavy on choices and tension and stakes. Such stories are what Brandy Clark promises, and what she delivers.
12 Stories was released by the independent label Slate Creek Records in October of 2013 and earned Clark a nomination for New Artist of the Year from the Country Music Association, despite the fact that none of her songs had garnered much attention from country radio. (Each of the other nominees, all men, had multiple number-one hits.) Clark’s merchandising team leaned into this anonymity, producing “Who the Fuck Is Brandy Clark?” t-shirts in time for the ceremony. They had occasion to sell more a few months later, when Clark was nominated for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammys alongside Sam Smith, Iggy Azalea, Bastille, and Haim. After the Grammy nod, her loyal (but, apparently, still few) fans could only roll their eyes when the Academy of Country Music—country’s other ceremonial body—nominated eight (eight!) men for New Artist of the Year, ignoring Clark, who’s still never cracked the Top 100.
So: Who the fuck is Brandy Clark? She’s the daughter of a logger and a mill worker from Morton, Washington (pop. 1,117); she’s 37 years old; she’s openly gay. She stands out among country’s current field, however, for more reasons than these biographical facts can offer. In a genre often maligned for hickish simplicity and bone-tired tropes, she is a writer—form and genre be damned—of the highest caliber.
In most contemporary popular music (as in most poetry, whence the terms), narrative has been snubbed in favor of the lyric; movement has given way to mood. Much of mainstream country—including the party-hearty bro-country spilling beer all over my local airwaves—has followed suit, but plenty still clings to narrative, at least structurally. (I’m thinking of songs like Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” in which the meaning of the titular line and chorus shift as the plot moves from first kiss to proposal to marriage.) Narrative, however, is not the same as story—in the literary sense. Story requires more than plot; a good story demands the particulars that imply a whole, the deep specifics of a life lived beyond the margins of the page, and a voice behind it all, singular and inquisitive and caring, deeply, for the characters it creates. Brandy Clark possesses such a voice.
Take “Hungover,” the clear-eyed portrait of a woman tired of her husband’s drinking and approaching the breaking point: Baby, your head ain’t the only thing hurting, you know. In Clark’s delicate rendering, a nodding head becomes a stomping boot as the passage of a morning—I drank my coffee / while yours got colder—transforms into the greater passage of time: The girl in the mirror— / I got to know her, / all while you were / hungover. The scene, the details, the voice soaked in scorn and over it—they might have come from the pen of Andre Dubus or Annie Proulx. You could compare Clark to a few of her contemporaries—occasional co-writer Kacey Musgraves, say, or fellow thirty-something rookie Angaleena Presley—but when I shill her work to friends, I usually find myself citing Raymond Carver.
“Traditionally, country music is a truth-telling, adult format,” Clark said in an interview, and referred to her work as “Showtime and HBO.” (The album’s slam-dunk of an opener, “Pray to Jesus,” takes its title from Weeds.) Clark’s songs fits squarely (if not exactly square-ly) into this tradition; she tackles drinking, smoking weed, pill addiction, and adultery with black humor but clear gravitas, like a wink from sad and knowing eyes. Much has been made of mainstream country lighting up with a vengeance, but (as I’ve written elsewhere) a country mile lies between Florida Georgia Line’s tailgating tokers and the middle-aged wife exhaling a long day in “Get High.” The latter feels as real as an aching back, detailed and drolly endured; the former feels like—hell, might as well be—a commercial.
Who the fuck is Brandy Clark? It’s a good question, but it’s not one 12 Stories is interested in answering. “Get High” is one of a handful of songs on the album written in the third person, a point-of-view that makes explicit the distinction between Clark the singer-songwriter and the protagonists to whom she gives voice. This line, so often and easily blurred in music, is drawn with thick ink in the album’s first-person ballads—“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven,” “In Some Corner,” and the slow-burning tearjerker “Just Like Him”—all of which have male love interests. Her characters are often straight; they are younger or older, married or divorced, mothers or murderous (not that the two are mutually exclusive, as Clark would be the first to point out). What they share, however, is their author’s attention, which remains flecked with pathos and free of judgment as she brings them—their desires, their problems, their flaws—to full-blooded life in three-and-a-half minutes.
Clark’s tone in this undertaking ranges from the wry, dark humor of the rollickin’ single “Stripes” to a truer, deeper, backwoods darkness on “Take a Little Pill.” (If one won’t work, she sells and laments in a single breath, another one will.) “Crazy Women,” a twanging feminist anthem, comes off like a Bonnie Jo Campbell character dosed with Miranda Lambert’s finest swagger. Clark drawls the verses languidly—Who’d have guessed / that Aqua Net / could start a fire / with a single cigarette—before flicking ash and homing in: Crazy women / are made by crazy men. If 12 Stories has one unifying theme, it’s empathy for these crazy women: taken for granted by the men around them, working-class and overworked, raising kids and hell—or aching to. “I want to write songs for somebody who is working at a bank,” Clark has said. “If that person could write a song, [I want to write] what they would write.”
I find such an admirable humility in this belief: that the stories of others are vital and worth vocalizing, that the truths we tell don’t have to be our own. As Shakespeare didn’t quite say, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your diary. In interviews, Clark often talks of her characters with the warmth most people reserve for their children. “When I’m really into a song,” she says, “I can picture the kitchen they’re sitting in.” This is fiction’s virtue, and its risk. I might picture a different kitchen, but each is equally valid—there is no painted or wallpapered version to weigh the vision against and find it wanting. Fiction creates as many realities as it has readers (or listeners); the best measure of a work’s success might be how present that reality feels. Don’t want to be buried in debt or in sin, Clark sings, so we pray to Jesus / and we play the lotto, / ‘cause there ain’t but two ways / we can change tomorrow. Maybe this fiction runs up against memoir, for me, maybe I am susceptible to Clark’s songs because they are stories those I know would tell, if they could. Or maybe she writes well enough to make my input irrelevant, well enough to convince anyone. The best storytellers do. Then again, I’m just another one of her crazy women—but hey, maybe you are too.
Mairead Small Staid (@maireadsmst) is a poet and essayist living in Michigan.