Brandy Clark has just completed her latest turn in a songwriter’s showcase at Nashville’s Bluebird Café and, for just a second, the room is silent as held breath. Then an ovation sweeps through like a small explosion, an exhalation of pent-up expectations and hopes and “Oh my God, did you hear that?”
I don’t remember for certain which number Clark had just sung—honestly, it might have been any of the songs off her amazing debut album, 12 Stories, released Oct. 22—but I think it was “What Will Keep Me out Heaven.” In that breathtaking piano-and-pedal-steel ballad, Clark plays a woman hesitating before an elevator, torn: The man waiting for her upstairs is married to a woman she doesn’t know and doesn’t wish to hurt—but then again she’s come to realize that she’s married to a stranger herself; that’s why she’s here. The lyric leaves her right there, too, undecided, weighing promise and regret—though the tremble and ache in Clark’s voice leaves little doubt she’s headed upstairs.
Clark was joined at the Bluebird that evening by a trio of good friends and fellow songwriters: Trevor Rosen, Josh Osborne, and, seated directly across from Clark for the Sept. 21 in-the-round-performance, Shane McAnally, who’s been on quite a songwriting roll lately. Partnering with several others—Clark, Rosen, Osborne, or the likeminded Kasey Musgraves, often as not—McAnally has co-written hits for Kenny Chesney, Lady Antebellum, Jake Owen, Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry, and Luke Bryan, and has seen dozens more of his songs recorded by Nashville types ranging from Lee Ann Womack to Uncle Cracker, Tim McGraw to Kelly Clarkson to Florida Georgia Line. He is the most successful songwriter Nashville has seen in a generation.
As the applause for Clark shrinks to excited murmurs, McAnally nods in his friend’s direction and says, “That girl’s gonna save this town.”
It was an offhand comment, but, considering the source, it was nearly as jaw-dropping as the performance that inspired it. After all, by the measures that matter most to the Nashville music establishment, Shane McAnally is this town. How can he possibly believe it needs saving?
Concerns about the soul of Nashville or of country music—not the same entities, by any means, but in this case close enough—are hardly new. Choose nearly any period of country you like—Nashville Sound, Urban Cowboy, Garth and Shania’s “Hot New Country,” take your pick—and you’ll find plenty of folks who, upon listening to the latest mainstream version of the genre, declared it in figurative danger of going to hell. But previously these complaints have come from musicians specializing in some sub-style or other that was just then being shut out by country radio—or from the fans who preferred those out-of-fashion sounds—rather than from someone like McAnally, whose work is in heavy commercial rotation, albeit in recordings by other singers.
So what’s the complaint, then? For the past several weeks, the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart has been a hard-rocking number with verses that are rapped as much as sung, a hoedown throw-down in which a hyper-macho singer seduces a tanned hottie while drinking a beer and driving his pickup truck down to the river in the moonlight. The record is “That’s My Kind of Night,” by country heartthrob Luke Bryan. But set the action in the afternoon instead, and switch out “beer” for “Southern [Comfort],” and the very same description works for “Cruise,” the Florida Georgia Line hit that topped the same chart for most of this past spring and summer. As it would, with minimal edits, for Blake Shelton’s “The Boys ’Round Here” and Randy Houser’s “How Country Feels” and too-many-to-count other radio hits, big and small, across the past half-decade.
Admittedly, there’s been more to country radio during these last several years than these party-hearty hits. But the songs have dominated playlists to such an extent that it has certainly felt like the format had turned into one never-ending-beer-keg-dirt-road-good-time-I’m-country-truck song. That dominance, to the seeming extinction of almost any other emotion or subject, is the complaint.
To be clear, this problem has absolutely nothing to do with these recordings in and of themselves. “That’s My Kind of Night,” for instance, is catchy as a virus and hard to resist cranking up full blast, even when (especially when) Bryan drops that his favorite hip-hop/country mixtape includes “a little Conway, a little T-Pain.” Everybody everywhere needs fun party songs, and Bryan’s hit is a good one.
But life isn’t only a party, it isn’t just about trucks. As the Carter Family liked to sing, life comes with stormy and sunny sides both, and with a thousand shades of sky between. Nashville country used to know that—and knew it regardless of how it sounded at any given moment. The country tradition has long given us songs about feeling pride in your work—and songs about hating your job. Songs about cherishing the small town where you grew up, and songs about feeling trapped there, as well—and ones about feeling both those emotions at the same time. Such songs have been a defining element of what has made country music “country” all along.
But a country music that neglects for too long the down-on-the-ground experiences and feelings of its audience—the marrying and the cheating, the fun and the pain (and the numbing of the pain, and sometimes the transcendence of it), the promise and the regret and more—is a genre in crisis. Maybe even a genre in need of saving.
This, one suspects, is where McAnally sees Clark coming to the rescue. While unmistakably up-to-date, her songs don’t break new ground so much as return to old fields left fallow too long. 12 Stories includes women who cheat and are cheated upon, who pop pills and smoke pot, outgrow husbands and get divorces, and who often learn to laugh about it all and love again. She sings movingly, distinctively, with sharply chosen details, and within intimate pop-country arrangements that by current radio standards practically holler their hush. 12 Stories is so good that you almost think Clark really could achieve Nashville’s salvation.
That’s too much pressure for any one artist, of course. But as that songwriters’ showcase at the Bluebird underscored, Clark isn’t alone. She has the back of a small but ridiculously successful and talented klatch of songwriters. And they have hers.
There are hints that McAnally, Clark, and the rest aren’t the only ones hoping something’s gonna give. Country act Wade Bowen’s latest single is “Songs about Trucks”; the message is, please don’t play any. McAnally and Clark co-wrote the song, in which a freshly broken-hearted narrator admits that while he loves a good truck song as much as the next fellow, right now he needs “Something deeper/ than S10 Chevy’s or F150’s/ Flatbed, Dodge Ram, dirt road ditties.” That’s a clever, perhaps seven winning, strategy: Load your call for a truck song moratorium with lots of trucks.
And, at next week’s Country Music Association Awards, the not-at-all-party-minded Miranda Lambert hit “Mama’s Broken Heart,” written by Clark, McAnally and Kacey Musgraves, is up for Single and Song of the Year. Musgraves’ own breakout single, the small-town-weary “Merry Go ’Round,” written by Musgraves, McAnally and Josh Osborne, is nominated as well—as is Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, loaded high with Musgraves, McAnally, Clark and Osborne co-writes—and without a truck in sight, though there is a mobile home.
One of the night’s key dramas will be to see whether or not CMA voters, comprised of some 6,000 music-industry pros, have decided to go the McAnally and Clark route, or not. Many observers, too, will be dying to see if Kacey Musgraves, nominated for six awards—as many as Taylor Swift—will devote her performance on the show, as is so often done, to promoting her latest single. In Musgrave’s case, that single is “Follow Your Arrow,” a rousing sing-along that good naturedly fights for the right to have sex in or, our call, out of wedlock; to smoke pot, or not, as you see fit; and, most controversially of all, to “kiss lots boys” if that’s your heart’s desire, or to “kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into.”
Co-written by McAnally and Clark, who are gay, and by Musgraves, who is not, “Follow Your Arrow” has already generated a bit of controversy as a “gay anthem.” But labeling it an anthem for individual liberty—a key if knotty country value in its own right—would be more like it. In what may be a sign of the times, Miranda Lambert’s current single, “All Kinds of Kinds,” is evangelizing for tolerance and variety on the radio too, just now. The difference is that Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” gets specific about what some of those kinds might be and replaces Lambert’s earnestness with ebullience.
But Musgraves, McAnally, and Clark make following one’s arrow sound less like an important point or message and more like a fun party. It’s a clever, perhaps even winning, strategy for saving this town.