Can Brandy Clark's 'Girl Next Door' Break Through at Country Radio?
A thrilling new single from an acclaimed songwriter faces an uphill battle.
The difficult climate for female singers at country radio has earned a lot of attention in the last year, especially in the aftermath of Keith Hill’s infamous suggestion that women are the tomatoes in danger of overpowering country radio’s salad. But conversations around the gender imbalance have not led to much change yet in the raw numbers. The most recent Country Airplay chart features four female lead singers in 30 spots.
Brandy Clark’s new single, “Girl Next Door,” offers a chance to see if the environment for female-helmed songs is improving. Clark is a known writer in Nashville -- with credits on hits like Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” -- but effectively a new voice on radio. In contrast with a star like Carrie Underwood, Clark will not automatically receive play on the airwaves. However, her affinity with a traditional sound and her writer-to-soloist story theoretically position her for success in the aftermath of Chris Stapleton’s rise to stardom.
It also helps that “Girl Next Door” is easily the most radio-friendly song Clark has ever released -- it's more muscular and uptempo than the singles from her debut album 12 Stories. A guitar scrapes insistently behind the verses, exuding broken-glass menace and hinting at Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen,” a pop hit in 1982. The beat is insistent, and shiny synths fly into the hook, adding a touch of gloss.
The song has been in the works for several years. Shane McAnally, who co-wrote it with Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, remembers it coming together around the time that 12 Stories arrived in 2013, inspired by a story Dillon told Clark about a relationship. “It’s just a hook that’s been sitting there waiting to be written forever,” McAnally says. “We write songs every day -- it’s so rare that a hook like that happens, where you’re like, ‘holy shit, how has this not been said?'
"Little Big Town had it on hold for a while,” he continues. “But it wasn’t long before 12 Stories started to make an impact, and Brandy was like, ‘I think that song could really be the next chapter.’”
The structure of “Girl Next Door” is designed for a take-no-prisoners airwaves assault: this single is all chorus. There are only two verses, and each is just six bars. All the payoff comes from the repetition of an eight-line hook and a six-line post-hook, designed to drill into your brain with brutal efficiency. “That’s something I love to do,” McAnally says. “Basically you drop this bomb of the hook, and you don’t even give the listener time to realize what just hit them. Then you repeat the hook again so people go, ‘oh, that just happened.’”
Clark also worked with the producer Jay Joyce on the new track, a savvy decision in terms of potential airplay. Since the start of 2015, Joyce productions for Eric Church, The Zac Brown Band, Little Big Town, and the Brothers Osborne all reached No. 1. McAnally sums up Clark’s partnership with the studio savant as “a home run.”
But he acknowledges that a home run on paper does not guarantee radio success. “We’re in a world where nothing is a sure thing anymore,” he says. “I’ve been completely flabbergasted by the lack of support for some of these songwriters who have gone on to transition into artists. I’ve worked on so many records, like Kacey Musgraves’, that I felt just as passionate and sure about.”
Though “Girl Next Door” only recently shipped to radio, programmers are already commending Clark’s abilities. “She’s such a brilliant writer,” says Marci Braun, music director at WUSN Chicago. Braun put the single in rotation last week, and she thinks Clark’s past hits have already served as a good introduction for radio listeners. “Whether the audience realizes it or not, they’re already familiar with her as a songwriter,” Braun says. “They’ve already connected with her.”
Unlike Clark’s earlier singles, “Girl Next Door” is a major label release, which should theoretically improve its prospects on the airwaves. “Warner has a great track record,” notes Gator Harrison, a senior vice president of programming for iHeartMedia. And more importantly, “major labels have more resources -- the more resources you have, the bigger radar you can get an artist on.” (That being said, Musgraves' last two albums were both major label releases; neither spawned a hit single.) “Any time John Esposito [President and CEO of Warner Music Nashville] puts his stamp on something, everybody sits up and pays attention,” adds Lance Houston, Program Director for WBWL Boston, in a separate conversation. “They’ve broken some big stars at Warner [in] the last couple years,” he continues, pointing to a group of male artists that includes Dan + Shay, Hunter Hayes, and Chris Janson.
Timing is important too, -- radio should be more receptive to Clark’s singer/songwriter reputation than it was two years ago. In 2015, several spare songs with strong traditional elements were ascendant in the format: see Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and Stapleton’s sudden emergence as a commercial force in the aftermath of his performance at the CMAs. “I think [Clark] could be the female Chris Stapleton,” Harrison suggests. “An artist that country listeners really get before a lot of programmers get it.”
Houston refers to the new sound infiltrating the airwaves as “hipster country.” He mentions Anderson East as an example -- East’s major-label debut album, Delilah, came out last year on Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sound imprint; Cobb also produced Chris Stapleton’s Traveller. Still, Houston believes that country radio is less fad-driven now than it has been in recent years, and that a strong track can break through regardless of whether it aligns with current trends. “Radio is just looking for great songs,” he says. “If you give us a great song, we’re going to play it.”
But at the end of the day, the programmers suggest they don’t have the final say. “We’ll play it for the listeners and ultimately they decide,” Harrison says. “If they love it, the research will be great, and we’ll play it more. If they don’t, it’ll be obvious -- and it’ll be unfortunate.”
In any case, “Girl Next Door” seems to anticipate a certain level of resistance, though Clark doesn’t plan on letting it get in her way, singing “you have a better chance of slowing down a train.” McAnally is cautiously hopeful about the single’s prospects, as long as listeners are given time to digest it. “Do I think it’s gonna be the easiest climb in the world?” he says. “Probably not. [But] if people hear it, I think it’s a slam dunk.”