Brandy Clark Saves United States Country Music

’12 Stories’ a music album by Brandy Clark (2013)

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Today I want to talk about the powerful new music album ’12 Stories’ by Brandy Clark which is probably the finest United States country album in at least a quarter century. Besides performing on them, Brandy Clark wrote all the songs on this excellent album. Here is a video of her song ‘Stripes’. But first a little background.

Back on March 10, 2003, on the eve of the United States invasion of Iraq, Natalie Maines of the country group the Dixie Chicks said during a concert in London, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The powers-that-be in country music were so offended by this statement that they stomped down hard on Natalie and the Dixie Chicks, and by the end of that month Dixie Chicks songs were no longer being played on any country radio station in the United States.  The company that sponsored their concerts, Lipton Tea, dropped them.  Yet one of the true country legends, Merle Haggard, defended their right to voice an opinion and condemned the verbal witch-hunt and lynching.  His defense went to little avail.

Then it was up to the big-time radio executives and record producers to enforce right-wing conformity on country music.  Clear Channel Communications, Inc owns at least 850 radio stations in the United States, by far the most of any corporation.  Many of these stations play country music.  On their news talk stations, Clear Channel airs among others Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity,

These executives succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in making sure country artists toed the line of conservative ‘Tea Party’ orthodoxy.  The only politics allowed were displays of militaristic patriotism.   Also there could be no hint of trouble in RedState land. Anything implying that the standard of living of working class whites might be declining had to be avoided.  As far as men and women were concerned, there could be no honest talk of severe problems in relationships.

Many country artists just wanted to avoid any controversy by not getting into anything controversial at all.  Thus we wind up with bubbleheads in cowboy hats singing lame party anthems and songs that don’t even sound like country songs.

images (1)Of course this went against everything that country music was in the past which frequently dealt with the real problems of real people, but this was the ‘New Country’ music.

Now along comes Brandy Clark.

She writes songs about real people with real problems.  She observes the people around her and finds that things aren’t so great in RedState land.  As the title indicates, here are twelve stories about the traditional subjects of country music like cheating, drinking, and divorce, and living in general.

We load our kids up in our new used car
And after church we hit the mini mart
Behind the counter up there on the wall
It reads 200 million on the power ball

….

So we pray to Jesus and play the Lotto.

                         From ‘Pray to Jesus’ by Brandy Clark 

The amazing thing about Brandy Clark is that she is not selling anything; she’s just carefully observing the way things are.  This is what the great country artists of the past did, but which the country artists of today are not allowed to do. 

As far as the relations between men and women, again things aren’t so good.  It’s that ‘liquored up lust’.

He was getting drunk just like the day before
The day she got divorced

Didn’t feel any different than it ever had
She wasn’t that sorry, wasn’t that sad
Couldn’t love him any less or hate him anymore
The day she got divorced

                     From ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ by Brandy Clark

I got a new job, I gave up smoking’
Changed my lipstick, and those roses opened
I let my hair grow down past my shoulders
All while you were hungover

                     From ‘Hungover’ by Brandy Clark

 Every one of these twelve songs is a classic country song that I listened to over and over.  The wording in these songs is brilliant.  It was fascinating and refreshing to get Brandy Clark’s take on life today.  It has been a long time since I’ve said that about any country artist. I suppose the closest artist from the past to Brandy Clark would be Loretta Lynn. Brandy Clark’s singing and the music on this album are excellent too.

There are other female artists who are pushing the envelope like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, both of whom have recorded Brandy Clark songs.  It would be wonderful if some male country artist would come along and write songs with similar honesty, courage, and insight as Brandy Clark.     

All that remains for Brandy Clark to do is to say something that offends Clear Channel and the Koch Brothers. 

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I’d say that mainstream country was highly conservative long before the Dixie Chicks got their very public kicking for exercising their constitutional rights of free speech.

    I just got an album by Caitlin Rose (in fact two albums as I got her earlier one too). She’s fairly poppy, but there’s still plenty there about relationship problems. For me that’s a core country theme, though you’re right one that’s not been about as much as it used to be. Artists like Laura Cantrell also have an element of social critique, but I think my albums by her preclude the Dixie Chicks thing.

    There’s a good argument to be made that the history of country music is the struggle between a handful of new musicians in each generation who want to say something real about their experience and an ultra-conservative music establishment who want to sell reassuring pablum in big numbers. The newcomers invigorate the form, but they do so every time against stiff opposition until they get older and accepted and suddenly are celebrated as always having been part of the tradition.

    There is definitely a major strand of country which is essentially propaganda, selling a reassuring god and guns message to a fanbase who basically just want something to sing along to on the radio. Against that is a much smaller strand of intelligent country which is doing something genuinely interesting. Of course, one could replace each use of the word “country” in this paragraph with R&B and it would be just as true of that genre too so it’s nothing unique to country.

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    • Hi Max,
      True, Country Music has always been conservative, but I don’t think it has ever been so straitjacketed creatively as it has been these last ten years. In the past the business was more interested in finding quality performers than in dictating the message. Now the performers and writers are pretty much locked down on what they can say. We have an over-control situation due to the monopoly corporation Clear Channel which has brought the genre of Country Music down.
      There are still some performers on the edges of the business like Emmy Lou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, and Alison Krauss who make good music, but don’t have to rely on country station radio play for their record selling. I suspect that is where Brandy Clark may wind up, on the edges.

      I am not familiar with Caitlin Rose or Laura Cantrell. Are they English performers?

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      • They’re both American. Laura Cantrell is an absolute great. The album Not the Tremblin’ Kind is the one I’d start with. For Caitlin Rose I’d look for a track called Shanghai Cigarettes – the main single from her first album. If you don’t like that I doubt you’ll like the rest. I can’t really imagine someone not liking Laura Cantrell.

        I do recall Country Music Television being a channel with a remarkably bland and constrained playlist. Clear sounds worse. I’m glad I’ve missed it.

        It’s painful actually, because while country isn’t a genre I hugely follow (though I will check out Brandy Clark) it does have some great music within its traditions and it’s sad to see that being throttled by some bizarre form of political righthink.

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        • I jusr looked up both Laura Cantrell and Kaitlin Rose on the AllMusic site. Both of them have albums that have high ratings on AllMusic. I guess I’m not as familiar with the Country Music scene as i thought I was. These two performers’ albums have the same rating as Brany Clark’s, 4 and 1/2 stars, but both of these performers have more than one album with this rating. I’ll want to check these out, especially Laura Cantrell.

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