"Baby, if you want the girl next door, then go next door," Brandy Clark twangs on her new single "Girl Next Door," seemingly sticking it to a demanding lover. But it would also be perfectly reasonable to interpret the song as an expression of the 39-year-old's take-me-as-I-am attitude toward her fast-rising country-music career. "Even though the song is about a relationship, in my heart it's about a much bigger thing," admits the singer-songwriter, tucked into a corner booth of a rustic-chic restaurant in Nashville's Germantown neighborhood. "I'm not perfect. I'm not the stereotypical Barbie doll. I can't be it; I won't be it."
As one of Nashville's top songwriters, digging in her heels is working for her. "I like to think that there is a change that is happening in country," Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, who has written and toured with Clark, tells Billboard. "And I can definitively say that Brandy Clark has been a big part of that change."
Yes, much has been made of the fact that Clark is one of the first openly gay artists to reach these heights in country, but that's not the change Nettles is talking about. A few years ago, when Clark emerged as a recording artist, country radio was at the peak of its reliance on testosterone-juiced, youthful fantasies of painting the small town red. Clark's specialty is pretty much the exact opposite: wry, country-folk character studies of working people. You can hear the difference in some of the hits she has written for others, including The Band Perry's "Better Dig Two" (No. 1 on Hot Country Songs) and Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart" (No. 2). Clark's 2013 debut, 12 Stories, earned her three Grammy nods, including best new artist (even as it has sold only 53,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music). And now, more than a decade into her career, she has what's shaping up to be her first radio hit: "Girl Next Door" is her debut on Country Airplay as an artist, rising 54-49 on the March 12 chart. With it leading the way, her second album, Big Day in a Small Town, due this spring on Warner Bros., just might make her a commercial star -- even as it chips away at narrow notions of who or what belongs in the country mainstream.
In 2014, Clark's friends made a joke of how a no-name to the masses was raking in award nominations. They dubbed that year's Country Music Association Awards show "Who the F-- Is Brandy Clark? Day" and even printed T-shirts that posed the rhetorical question in bold, block lettering. Clark lost new artist of the year to Brett Eldredge but still had a headline-grabbing moment when she, her frequent co-writer Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves walked onstage to claim the song of the year trophy for Musgraves' single "Follow Your Arrow."
"Do you guys realize what this means for country music?" Musgraves asked triumphantly, toasting the fact that a song co-written by two gay artists (Clark and McAnally), featuring lyrics that shrug at same-sex affection, could matter so much to a genre with a reputation for being socially conservative. It was a heartening moment. But to Clark, less heartening has been the media's fixation on her sexual orientation: "The only people who ask me about my sexuality are journalists -- whenever there's a story to write, it seems like a cool talking point. I've never had a label person say anything to me about it; I've never had a radio person ask me about it." She points out that straight artists like Musgraves, whose bandleader Misa Arriaga is also her boyfriend, don't have to field nearly as many questions about their love lives -- "which is how it should be, in my opinion," adds Clark.
She would much rather talk about the place where she fell in love with country and learned how to write songs that leaven tough realities with resilient humor: Morton, Wash., where most folks eked out a living in timber. Her mother worked at a mill for years, and her logger father died on the job at 52. After Mount St. Helens rained down volcanic ash on their part of the state in 1980, her grandmother recruited her to model souvenir "I Skied Down Mount St. Helens" T-shirts, complete with burn holes, at the flea market. As a teenager, Clark largely was unfazed by the Seattle grunge scene exploding a mere two hours north; she was more into performing in a country trio with her mom. "I wasn't that kid who wanted to get away from their parents," says Clark. "But my dreams just couldn't come true in Morton, so I had to leave."
She wound up in Nashville, where she saw how much emphasis was put on overhauling the images of young country hopefuls -- what she calls "the hair and makeup part of it" -- and shifted her focus from recording to writing behind the scenes. A dozen or so years later, once she had established herself as a songsmith, her manager, Emilie Marchbanks-Glover, offered to help her finance the recording of a debut album. After major labels rejected it, 12 Stories came out on the indie Slate Creek in 2013. (Warner Bros. signed Clark in 2014 and rereleased the record.) McAnally still marvels at Clark "having the balls to make a record in the first place," he says. "Everyone in town had given her an expiration date as an artist and decided that she was just a songwriter."
By then, Clark had skipped the phase when she might've been pushed to act like a malleable, hot young thing. "For one, I wouldn't look good in a short skirt," she says with a grin. "But nobody has ever asked me to wear one or be anything I'm not."
If anything, Clark's songwriting deflects attention from her personal life; her tales of small-town blues aren't meant to be autobiographical. On 12 Stories, there were harried moms who coped by rolling joints at the kitchen table. Big Day in a Small Town broadens the cast to include a homecoming queen struggling with post-school life (on "Homecoming Queen") and a wife charging into Walmart in her nightgown to catch her cheating husband (on the title track). "I think the focus is where I've always wanted it to be -- on the music," says Clark. "When I meet people after shows, they want to tell me how they're those people [I sing about] more than they want to know about my life."
For Big Day in a Small Town, Clark recruited white-hot producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), who worked muscled-up guitars and propulsive beats into her gentler sound. Upon hearing the result, Warner Bros. knew the album had a chance at radio and recruited sister label Warner Music Nashville to promote "Girl Next Door." It's a sign of how far Clark has come -- Warner Nashville was one of the labels that passed on her debut.
"If you said to me five years ago that I'd be doing all this, I would've been like, 'What are you talking about?' " says Clark. "And I would've thought I couldn't do most of it. But what I've learned is that I can do all of it -- I just have to do it my way."