I first saw Terri Clark about 20 miles from where I now live. She was playing the Scioto County fair in Lucasville, Ohio in 2003. I was 19 years old that Summer, and life was a blast. About a year before, I had become captivated by country music, and the Terri Clark show was the only reason I was on the fairgrounds that night. The date was August 5, a date I later learned was Terri’s 35th birthday. I’m not sure she acknowledged that fact onstage, but it had already been made apparent by the singing of a small group of fans congregated backstage. These people had traveled to southern Ohio from various states to be at Terri’s show on her birthday. Terri Clark’s fans obviously adore her, and always have. I feel lucky to be numbered among them – especially after I heard her channel Patsy Cline in one breath and then do a pitch-perfect John Anderson impression in the next.
I still have my autograph from that hot August night, and I still drive to see Terri Clark when she comes close. Over the years, I’ve watched and listened with fascination to her since she was the lone female hat act in the mid-90s parade of Stetsons. I soaked up the imagery and personal songs on Fearless, rocked with her for the past few albums. And now that I’m being forced into maturity, Terri’s music is still relevant to me. Not many artists have maintained my attention as long and as consistently as the tall brunette from Alberta, Canada.
After being a consecutive hit-maker for over a decade, Clark felt the restraints of major label politics weighing her down, and like so many other artists, went the indie route with her latest album. The result couldn’t be more organic or more rewarding to the listener. Raw and real, The Long Way Home, has many saying the singer has finally reached her potential as a recording artist. I’m no expert, but I think that means the best is yet to come.
When I talked with Terri, we discussed her early days as a barroom singer at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the fast track to fame, and her goals for her career in the long haul. I also asked about the album, writing and recording it, and also about her new unplugged tour. Here’s the conversation between one very happy fan and one talented woman.
J.R. Journey: The first thing I want to say is that I absolutely love your new album, The Long Way Home. It topped my best of 2009 list. I just want to say thanks for giving your fans such a great album.
Terri Clark: Well I want to thank you for that. That, that means a lot. When I get to put something up on my website saying it made the best of 2009 list somewhere, it means a lot because I really put my heart and soul into it. So I really appreciate that very much.
J.R.: I’ve always loved the story of how you began your career in Nashville as a singer at Tootsie’s downtown. How did you come about that gig?
T.C.: Well, like any other tourist, I was walking around, and I was doing the tourist trap thing. I was 18 years old and it was my first week in Nashville of course I wanted to see Tootsie’s, being a history buff. So I wanted to know what that was all about. So we went in there, me and my mom and a friend. And there was virtually nobody in there. I asked the guy sitting there on the stool if I could sit in at some point and sing a few songs. He said yes and I got up and started singing. The door was open and people started filtering in. And the owner of the place, the manager, saw that it brung some people in. So he gave me a job. I got my first gig there for $15 a day plus tips.
J.R.: And you knew, back then, that Tootsie’s was considered a country music landmark of sorts?
T.C: Oh yeah, I’d read about it. I did all my homework before I went to Nashville. (laughs)
J.R.: After paying your dues in clubs like that, you finally got your break and then rocketed to the top pretty fast with your debut album. What would you say to other artists just getting on that fast track today?
T.C.: I’d say to surround yourself with people who know how to say no. I find too many artists that have a lot of hangers-on that don’t know how to say no. And if they’re on the payroll and if they’re a bunch of yes-men, then you don’t get a real grounding barometer and moral compass that way. I think that artists that are on the fast track, and it’s all-new and it’s all exciting, and it’s all about you, it makes it really easy to go off track. I find it important to stay grounded with the people who knew you before, family, friends from high school. I mean, I still have friends from high school that I talk to on a regular basis. I have through all of this process. And it does help. It’s a heady thing. I think the thing is to surround yourself with people who care about who you really are instead of the person everybody sees on television.
J.R.: I’ll be attending a show in February. Tell me what we can expect on your new Unplugged and Alone Tour.
T.C.: I’m really excited about that. I’ve heard that tickets have gone really well for that. I’m doing about 15 shows between the end of February and the end of March that are just me solo and alone. It’s much in the fashion I started out in, at Tootsie’s, sitting on a stool. I’ll abandon the tip jar on these gigs. It’s a chance for me to do a little less of a – not that I choreograph my show – I can sort of mess with the set list and do different songs each night. If somebody yells out an album cut, maybe I’ll try and play it. There’s going to be a lot more audience interaction. I’m going to have a stomp box and there will be a pedal with a few drum loops on it. I’m just really excited about it. Part of my whole thing is the banter. I love to talk to the audience. These rooms are between 150 – 400 people. It’s going to feel so personal and so intimate, kind of like they’re sitting in my living room. And that’s the sort of vibe that I want to have. I’ll be pulling album cuts back from my second and third album on that I feel people have always liked. That for whatever reason, I feel the label maybe missed as a single. And I’m going to be bringing them back out and dusting them off and playing them at some of these shows.
Terri Clark performing in Lindsay, Ontario in October 2009. Photo by Cindy Tangorra.
J.R.: I read in another interview where you said your new album ‘does the best job of translating what you do live’ than any other record you’ve done. Why do you think that is?
T.C.: Because we have horsepower where we need it. But it’s also very real and it’s not perfection. We didn’t go and tune the hell out of everything. I mean, it sounds real. This one has more of a live feel to it because it’s got all the musicians in one room. We cut every track within two days. When you go back to and dub the hell out of everything and it’s very homogenized. It’s not real. That’s what I like about it. I’ve always carried a pretty big touring band with me. I’ve got 6 or 7 pieces, so we’ve really got a big sound coming from the stage. But I felt like, if anything, I had to mute tracks rather than add things when we were mixing the record. The older I get, less is more for me, and I want it to be stripped down. When you have a 6 or 7 piece band in the studio, I found out after the fact, that I had to go and take stuff out. This is too much for me. So striking that balance has always been tricky, but I think we did well with this album. And the next one is going to be even more stripped down. More in that fashion that I did Fearless.
J.R.: That actually leads me to another question, so I’ll just skip to it. One of the best-received tracks on the album is the stripped down version of ‘Gypsy Boots’. I know you’ve done unplugged shows in the past, and are again this year. Are there any plans for an unplugged Terri Clark album?
T.C.: I might. I’m going to see how this tour goes, and what we can do. If we could go out and maybe do a few more and record some of that. I don’t see why not. Especially if the new album is going to have more of a stripped down feel.
It’s funny, you can spend $10,000 to put horns on a track, and strings. And I can go in a do the acoustic version of ‘Gypsy Boots’ on the album, and it doesn’t cost me a dime. And that’s the one that people seem to like better. So you don’t have to go in and spend goo-gobs of money for people to like what you’re doing.
J.R.: If we can, I’d like to talk about songwriting for a minute. With everything you’ve been through in the past few years – label changes and family illness – how did that affect your writing, one way or another?
T.C.: Oh, it absolutely affected my writing. When the person closest to you is facing death, your own mortality comes into it. You re-prioritize things a bit in your life. Like what’s really important to me? My music has always been very important to me and I think it’s the way I’m conducting myself. I wanted to say things that really mattered, and could make a difference, and were really honest. Now it’s more about filling my soul than filling my pocketbook. Financially, I’m not making what I was making when I was churning out radio hits, but it’s so much more fulfilling to me creatively. And I realize that I had a priority shift and that that was what was important. At the end of the day, what do you want to say you accomplished? That became more important to me, and my family is more important. The list of things to do shifted around. Part of the reason I wanted to get off from a major label was to be able to make music that was a little more honest to where I was coming from and touching people more.
J.R.: Several of the tracks on The Long Way Home deal with growing as a person and maturity. To me, it sounds like a good buddy – one who’s been there before – giving advice, or simply sharing their own life experiences. Was this mature slant intentional or just a product of the lyrics flowing out?
T.C.: It’s kind of how it all came together. These songs were written over a two-year period. What’s ironic about it is I was writing all these songs at a time when my label was looking for the magic song that would become a big hit at radio. I was writing, hoping that I could write it. But I was writing all this stuff that was coming from my gut, because of what was going on in the rest of my life. And even though they passed on a lot of these songs, I didn’t know I was writing my first semi-independent record. It all did happen that way. It came from a very honest place because of everything that was going on. I had a body of work to go in a record as soon as I was out of my contract. I didn’t have to go and look, I had it all. It was already there. It was easy. And now I’m back to the drawing board, for the next record. Because I’m stuck. (laughs)
J.R.: What do you feel is the musical thread that consistently runs through your music? What do Terri Clark’s fans expect from her?
J.R.: What, would you say, have been the constant goals you’ve tried to accomplish with your work?
T.C.: I’ve always tried to make really good albums. I’m not one of these people who want to put two radio hits on a record and the rest is all filler. Which is part of my quandary about how many album cuts I think got missed. Anybody I’ve worked with, and right down to myself as a producer, I’ve always tried to do this. I grew up with an album as a body of work. As a thematic, consistent thing from start to finish, that you listen to as an experience, not just for two songs. Coming from that generation, I try to make my albums almost have a thematic consistency to them, and be strong from start to finish.
Visit Terri’s official site to read her journal, the latest news, and get the latest tour dates for her Unplugged and Alone Tour on sale now.