Perhaps feeling pigeon-holed by country radio, Terri Clark sought a change in direction for her fourth studio release. She hired a new producer, Steuart Smith and turned to fellow singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter to supply her with some new material. The result is a more introspective set of songs, with less twang and more contemporary and middle-of-the-road production. Heralded by many critics as an artistic triumph, country radio was singularly unimpressed and shunned Fearless after the first single peaked at #13. In recent years, radio has become an increasingly unreliable judge of music quality, but this is one time I am firmly in radio’s corner; with one or two exceptions, Fearless is a dull and lifeless collection with little of the charm found in Clark’s previous work. It is my least favorite album in her catalog.
Fearless could just have easily been titled Terri Clark Sings Mary Chapin Carpenter, for Carpenter’s influence can be heard throughout the album, including and beyond the three tracks that she co-wrote. I find Carpenter’s music to be very hit or miss; when she’s great, she’s really great, but many of her albums are tedious to get through. Some of the songs on Fearless might have worked better if Carpenter were singing them, but the style just doesn’t work for Terri Clark. When I listen to a Terri Clark album, I want to hear Terri Clark, not a Mary Chapin Carpenter wannabe.
The lead single, “A Little Gasoline” is one of two tracks on which Terri’s previous producer Keith Stegall acts as a co-producer. It is closer in style to Terri’s earlier work and is the only truly radio-friendly track on the album. There must have been some concern — justified, as it turned out –that radio would not be receptive to Clark’s new sound, and “A Little Gasoline” seems to have been selected as an insurance policy against that. The strategy was somewhat successful; “A Little Gasoline” received enough airplay to reach #13 and become the album’s most successful single. The remaining singles did not fare as well: “No Fear” stalled at #27, “Gettin’ There” reached #41 and the mind-numbingly dull “Empty” did not chart at all.
The one truly enjoyable track on the album is Terri’s exquisite remake of the Carlene Carter-Susanna Clark song “Easy From Now On”. Emmylou Harris, whose definitive version reached #12 in 1978, sings harmony. The stripped-down acoustic guitar and fiddle arrangement gives the track a Celtic feel. It’s a beautiful, well performed and tastefully produced recording. It’s a shame that none of the album’s other tracks come even close to matching it.
Though the album is not to my personal taste, Terri deserves great credit for trying something different, instead of resting on her creative laurels. In theory, collaborating with acclaimed songwriters such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kim Richey and Beth Nielsen Chapman sounds like a good idea, but the results just don’t seem to be a good fit for Clark. Like her two previous albums, it reached #4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart; however, it was her first album that failed to earn gold or platinum certification in the United States. It did earn gold certification in Canada, representing sales of 50,000 units or approximately half the Canadian sales of her previous album.
Fearless is not essential listening, but diehard fans can purchase it inexpensively from Amazon.