NASHVILLE -- Poor Brandy Clark should know this won't work. After all, she's been told time and again.
Country music decision-makers and label bosses have explained it all: They love her songs - which trade on dark humor, layered intelligence, real-life moral conundrums and grown-up problems - but she's a square peg trying to fit into a country music terrain filled with round holes.
"People at the labels would never just say, 'No,'" Clark says, recalling her fruitless efforts to get a major label recording contract. "They'd say, 'I love this, can I get a copy for my wife?' But it would always end with, 'I'm a big fan, but I don't know what we could do with it.'"
Of course they didn't know what to do with it. Poor Brandy Clark just doesn't fit. She's a female in what is now a male-dominated format, and an independent artist in a genre dominated by large record labels.
She's 35, four years older than age-defying veteran Kelly Clarkson, the eldest of the five women nominated this year for the Country Music Association female vocalist award. Clark is nominated for one CMA, song of the year.
She's an openly gay, adult female who writes vulnerable songs about infidelity, alcohol abuse and small-town desperation, while radio playlists are featuring cocksure, mandolescent songs about hooking up, getting buzzed and hometown pride.
"I would just hope that the music will speak for itself, and will transcend all of that," she says. "Maybe I'm naive in thinking that."
Weird thing is, poor Brandy Clark enters this CMA Awards week as one of the top stories in country music. Fifteen years after she moved to Nashville from Washington state to attend Belmont University, the naive thing is serving her well.
Released last week to a top 30 sales debut, her12 Storiesalbum (Slate Creek Records) is getting raves from Rolling Stone, National Public Radio, American Songwriter, Billboard, CBS'Sunday Morningand a bunch of other taste-shaping outlets.
"Lately, there's a whole lot more moonlight and muscle shirts at the top of the country charts," wrote NPR's Tom Ashbrook. "Suntans and catfish and big trucks. American bravado. Singer-songwriter Brandy Clark can make you jump and smile, but she goes dark, too. Real."
A bit of a regime change
Of late, Clark has co-written two top-charting country songs -Better Dig Twofor The Band Perry andMama's Broken Heartfor Miranda Lambert - and she'll receive a CMA award ifMama's Broken Heartwins the song of the year prize on Wednesday. She's a key contributor to friend Kacey Musgraves'Same Trailer, Different Parkalbum, a song-set that helped earn Musgraves six CMA nominations (enough for a top-nominee tie with superstar Taylor Swift).
Clark co-wrote Musgraves' current single,Follow Your Arrow, a song that includes lyrics about same-sex relationships and marijuana use. She's the third in a trio of gifted, intelligent female country newcomers (with Musgraves and Ashley Monroe) to release breakthrough albums in 2013, and she, Musgraves, Shane McAnally, Luke Laird, Jessie Jo Dillon, Mark Stephen Jones are among a friendly gang of co-conspirators who are finding fresh ways to write successful contemporary country songs.
"Maybe I'm just being optimistic, but I feel a little bit of a regime change," Clark says, sitting at Nashville's Sunset Grill, a restaurant frequented by the same record label honchos who couldn't find a fit for her. "I feel people responding to things that are a little different from what's on the radio, in a huge way."
Among the early responders was Juli Thankee, editor at influential country music website Engine 145, who was so moved by Clark's12 Storiesthat she wrote a glowing review in July. CMT senior vice president Leslie Fram also jumped onboard, playing Clark's self-fundedStripesvideo long before album release and bringing Clark's sound and image into the living rooms of country music fans through the cable TV network.
Clark's Twitter feed was soon filled with positive messages from fans of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and other favorites of the day. Apparently, listeners don't pay much attention to peg shape.
"I don't think we (in country music) give our audience enough credit," Clark says. "They're really smart. They're forward-thinking, open-minded people, or at least the ones I meet are. They love music like the Dixie Chicks and Jamey Johnson, because those artists don't think they're smarter than the audience.
"I know (Grammy-winning producer) Brent Maher a little, and I asked him, 'How did you decide who you would work with?' He said, 'I just went with what moved me and figured if it'd move me it'd move two or three million other people.' I try to think about my songs like that. I always just think, 'I'm going to write whatever is the truest, most entertaining thing I can.'"
As voiced through others, her songs have moved two or three million other people. Now, Clark's songs may be heard in her own rich voice.
She eschews gratuitous vocal flourishes, calling attention to lyric and emotion rather than to range and technique. She is about expression, not impression. Which is why she's impressive.
"Just in case country radio wants to start playing somebody brand-new and brilliant and one of the most profound songwriters that's come out of this town in years and years, you might want to take a look at Brandy Clark," Marty Stuart says. "I'd stand on Hank Williams' coffee table and preach that. That's good stuff."
Clark knows songwriters are looking to "12 Stories" as a test case, and hoping it could change the landscape of terrestrial FM country radio.
"That door just needs to come open a crack," she says." Lots of people inside of it are like, 'Man, if something different would break through there'd be an outlet for the songs I'm writing. For me, I write so many female songs that have no place to go, and they won't go anywhere unless there are females on the radio. So anytime a female comes out, I'm pulling for them."
Poor Brandy Clark believes that things can get better, and that she can be part of the betterment. She believes country music's audience is intelligent and discerning.
She believes 35 is not too old to be viable, that darkness and humor can be entertaining, and that adult life can be fodder for popular country songs. She thinks that if you hammer a square peg into a round hole hard and long enough, you'll wind up with a square hole.
She should know this won't work.
She should know lots of folks hope it does.