For two years, Brandy Clark’s solo debut sat, finished, on the shelf, itching for a release. It was a battle to get the record out, the country singer-songwriter tells, before quickly reneging her militaristic phrasing with something of a self-aware curl in her voice, to settle instead on “long road.”

Tedious as that time gap might have been, Clark spent it co-penning songs for artists like LeAnn Rimes, Gretchen Wilson, Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, Kacey Musgraves, The Band Perry and Miranda Lambert. She scored her first top five hits this year with the latter two, Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” peaking at No. 2 on the country charts and the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” reaching No. 1, a stunning paean to the “’til death” part of marital vows that briefly broke Florida Georgia Line’s babes-in-Chevys stronghold on the top spot.

Her debut, 12 Stories–released earlier this week via the small Slate Creek label–now caps off a banner, breakout year for Clark, though the pressure of smashing solo success hardly weighs heavy on her.

“I just want that record to be heard, and my goal in life is to make music I’m proud of, that makes a lasting mark,” Clark says. “I’ve always wanted to write a classic song, a modern [Patsy Cline’s] ‘Crazy,’ so whether that happens for me as an artist on my own or as a songwriter, I’m going to be pretty thrilled.”

Clark’s position between fledging solo artist and hitmaker for others isn’t necessarily something new in Nashville, but she’s navigating that unique space from a brutally honest, left-of-center perspective as contemporary country music grapples with not just its past, but more significantly various visions of the future.

While the traditionalists and mostly male new school (as of 10/23, the Top 10s of the Hot Country and Country Airplay charts featured just one woman a piece: Cassadee Pope in the former for “Wasting All These Tears,” and Lambert in the latter for “We Were Us,” her duet with Keith Urban) dispute the merits of incorporating Top 40 pop and hip-hop into country songs about trucks and the things that make those Southern gals so darn sweet, Clark and her circle of songwriters — Shane McAnally, Josh Osbourne, Jessie Jo Dillon, Trevor Rosen, Matt Ramsey, Mark Stephen Jones, Matt Jenkins, and more – plus artists like Lambert and her group Pistol Annies, have carved a path strewn with contemporary tales of stuck townies, pill-popping housewives and spurned lovers that harkens back to the lonesome ranchers, cowboy junkies and, well, spurned lovers of yore.

Kacey Musgraves became something of the de facto face of this shift earlier this year. Her superb Same Trailer Different Park often tackled those super no-fun subjects with a savvy, openness and empathy distinct to 2013. The record debuted atop the Country Albums Chart and at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, behind Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. Musgraves recently tied Taylor Swift for the most CMA nods this year with six, and just a few weeks back “Follow Your Arrow,” which she co-wrote with Clark and McAnally, was released as a single. A shimmering fan favorite, feel-good sing along strung with indelible, limber lyrics and melodies, its chorus extolls the virtues of rolling up a joint, making lots of noise and kissing lots of boys or, perhaps most worrisome to the Nashville brass, kissing lots of girls, If that’s something you’re into.

“When great songs get to be heard, it helps all songwriters,” Clark says. “It helps songwriters that don’t even know they’re songwriters yet. I was luckily influenced by great songs, and that’s why I wanted to write great songs…I think it’s a really exciting time, and my hat’s off to someone especially like Kacey who has the guts to put something out that is less a spinner, to just say, ‘This is me and this is the song I believe in.'”


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