Country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark originally got her start performing in school musicals. She has blossomed into a superb songwriter; last year’s Big Day in a Small Town
features a terrific collection of articulate songs about this American life.
Charlie Worsham, another consummate singer-songwriter, will release his new album, Beginning of Things
, next month.
He's teamed up with Clark for a co-headlining tour that brings them to House of Blues at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 8. In separate interviews, they spoke how they developed their songwriting skills.
How do you two know each other?
We have a lot of serendipitous connections. We have mutual friends who are wonderful people in the Nashville community. Leslie Fram at CMT – we are two of the first singer-songwriters she heard when she moved to Nashville a few years ago. We put out debut albums out at about the same time. We had the same process of crazy critical acclaim and the current trend engulfed us like a tidal wave, and we’ve been through the journey of how to be true to ourselves. When I did my Ernest Tubb marathon, she was one of the first people to get back to me. I didn’t know until that night it was her record release date, and she had been going since God knows how early that morning. She was so sweet to come and sing. She just blew everyone away. When conversations started happening amongst both of our teams, it just fell into place naturally, and I couldn’t be more excited.
The first time I met Charlie was at a Christmas party at Leslie Fram’s house. She is the VP of Programming at CMT. Her title might even be bigger than that. For me, she was the first person who had any power who did something for me to helped move the needle. I think Charlie has a similar experience. I met Charlie and his former manager at the party, and he played that night. We all played that night, and I was blown away by him. I sat up there and played and he jumped in and played with me. That always impresses me because I sure can’t do that. We both love traditional country music. We both love Marty Stuart and Charlie is from Mississippi, the same state as Marty. We wrote together one time and need to do it more. We’re at the same record label now. There are a lot of connections there. The thing I love about having Charlie out is that he’s so great. I know that every night I need to bring my A-plus-plus game because he’s so good.
You’re both consummate singer-songwriters. What first drew you to singing and songwriting?
I was always a player, a musician. I took piano lessons in kindergarten and that went a lot better than soccer or karate. It snowballed into banjo. I played more and more and by high school it was day job and I started singing by necessity. We had four 45-minute sets in the night and the other guys in the band needed someone to help. At the same time, during my high school years, I acquired some recording equipment from Norbert Putnam, who happened to live in my home town of Grenada, Mississippi. He’s a famous session musician and producer. I started writing songs because I ran out of cover songs to record. By the time I was at college in Boston, I started to take the writing seriously.
First, as a kid, I was drawn to singers and songs. I didn’t know songs were written. I thought they were always just in the world. Once I found out that they didn’t just exist, I was amazed by that. I started writing songs at an early age. For me, the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter
about Loretta Lynn and seeing her in her garden writing a song was an important moment. Singer-songwriters like Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton in the country world were inspirations, but singer-songwriters in the pop world like James Taylor and Carole King were people I couldn’t get enough of.
Do you recall the first song you wrote?
Absolutely. There were three. There was one called “Breaking all the Rules” and there were two jingles. There’s something to be said for jingle writing. You only have to write 30 seconds of music, and I convinced the local feed store to and the local hair salon to pay me a hundred bucks each to have the jingle and play it on the local radio station. That was the first time I heard something I’d written on the radio.
I kind of remember it a little bit. It was called “Pieces of Heart.” Two movies affected me as much as anything. One was Coal Miner’s Daughter
and the other was Sweet Dreams
about Patsy Cline. I would try to write songs like the ones in those two movies. I was a 9-year-old trying to write these heartache songs.
Talk about how growing up where you did contributed to your approach.
It was a seminal part of how I discovered and grew with music. In Mississippi, there's a lot you can point to in our past that's not so great. We’ve had our struggles as a state and have done plain-out wrong things. Somehow, throughout our history, we’ve maintained this thread of musical culture, from Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music to BB King, the king of the blues to Elvis Presley, the king of rock 'n' roll. In country alone, there’s Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Marty Stuart, Faith Hill and Randy Houser. There’s also William Faulkner and John Grisham and Eudora Wetley. There’s not a lot of social insulation. I was exposed to so much great culture. Eddie Willis who was one of the famous musicians for Motown, lives in Grenada. I had these mentors literally down the street. It was a huge part of my education and growing up.
I grew up in a very small town and I think that shaped me a lot. It was a blue-collar town where most everyone’s dad is a logger. It’s a dangerous job and a hard job. It has a lot to do with the things I write about and the way I approach songwriting. I can’t imagine having grown up any other place.
How did the songs for your latest album start to come together?
I put out my debut album, Rubber Band
, and the second single died in the middle of an 18-month touring marathon I was on. I learned the hard lesson that I had to write a new record, and I had another nine months of touring. I was touring with Sam Hunt. Nobody knew who would blow up and who wouldn't. My first single died and he was on a meteoric rise. I was in a frustrated place where I didn’t feel like I was connecting with the audience. When I came off the road, a handful of people did the right thing. Cris Lacy, who’s my A&R person and John Esposito, the head of the label, sat down with me and they didn’t send me off to write with this his songwriter or that hit producer. They told me to take all the time I wanted. They wanted me to make Charlie music. Thus began the quest. I picked up some notebooks, and I promised to fill the page with a truth every day. The more I wrote in the notebooks, the more I found the sound I first discovered and fell in love with while growing up in Mississippi. Frank Liddell and Eric Masse continued to encourage me to find that inner voice and not to blindly listen to whatever else was out there and working. Frank kept the studio doors locked until I had all the songs. Frank says records are taking a photograph of an artist at a certain time. I’m really proud of Rubber Band,
but we wrote it over two years. With The Beginning of Things
, we spent six days working on it and cut 15 to 18 songs. It was a four-piece band playing live. It’s just one photograph. That’s the story of the record and the journey of it. I did what the label wanted me to and showed up with Charlie music.
I wrote them over a long time period. For me, some of the songs on Big Day
were written before 12 Stories
came out. It will be the same with my next record. There are songs that are floating up for me now. I try to think of a concept and build around that. When I wrote the song “Big Day in a Small Town,” it was right after 12 Stories
was either finished or had come out. I thought it would be a great record. I started to build around that. Some of that was songs I already had and some of it was writing new songs.
You write albums, not singles. Talk about why that’s important to you.
hat’s another lesson that Frank taught me. I thimnk Brandy picked up that too. Just when you think making albums doesn’t matter, that’s when you go and make a great album. I grew up listening to commercial music. I grew up country. My uncle cuts his hair with the dog sheers. Whatever I write will be country. The singles can grow in album dirt, but you can’t grow albums in single dirt. It doesn’t work the other way around.
I have to think in a record. I don’t think I would be a good artist to just cut singles. If you asked me to show who I am in one song. I could do that. But to cut four songs that are singles, I wouldn’t be successful at that. Maybe it’s because I always loved records. I want songs on the record that wouldn’t have a chance of being commercially successful. For me, that’s why you buy a record. You buy a record for that last track on the record that if it weren’t for the record, you’d never hear. That was me as a record. I remember one of my favorite records ever was Patty Loveless’s When Fallen Angels Fly
. The last song is called "Over My Shoulder". It’s still one of my favorite songs. I think that’s why you buy the record. I wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. For me, I haven’t made a true concept album, but having a concept helps give the record cohesiveness.
Are the characters your songs based on real people?
Part of the meaning of the album title The Beginning of Things
is that I play piano on the title track, and I hadn’t done that. I don’t know for sure, but with the title track I know the writers wanted to write a song that would make Paul Simon proud. Paul Simon made a record down in Muscle Shoals that I’m proud of. Though I don’t have a blueprint that fits that story, the truth of the story connects in a real way for me. It feels like it’s something I can connect to because it has the Muscle Shoals-like horns too.
I would say that they’re based on real people but sometimes they turn into composite characters.
You’re still really connected to your hometown. Talk about why that’s important. Has “Broke” made its way into your sets?
It’s the most important thing. I love what I get to do for a living. In a lot of ways, I won the lottery to do what I love for a living. And yet, I’ve started referring to my job as fundraising for the human being work I do. Obviously, this can tie into where we are as a country politically speaking. We’re so divided. And I see things that frustrate me and make me sad and angry, and I do know that my job as a citizen is to speak up, but I think the most effective thing to do is to go local and go back home. Nobody knows what it’s like to be a kid in Grenada like I do. The truth is that I get more out of [my charity] that anyone else. it connects me with my inner child and keeps me sane in many ways.
It’s where I come from and where I would go if the bottom fell out of everything. I feel supported by the people there, and my mom still lives there. I think that has a lot to do with it too. It’s where I think about going for Christmas and that kind of stuff.
An Evening with Brandy Clark & Charlie Worsham, 7 p.m. Saturday, April 8. House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $22.50, houseofblues.com.