It’s difficult to believe — or hell, maybe it isn’t — that every major label in Nashville rejected Brandy Clark’s first album, 12 Stories. The Washington State native has written or co-written songs for Reba McEntire, Darius Rucker, Miranda Lambert and the Band Perry, and her debut is an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking collection of character-driven songs about women who go crazy and the men who drive them there. Even before its release, it was hailed as a landmark debut and one of the best albums of the year.
Still, she spent nearly two years trying to get a label interested in the damn thing. It’s their loss. 12 Stories lives up to the considerable buzz, placing Clark squarely at the forefront of a new wave of Nashville songwriters who are quietly challenging the conventions of country music. Writing both alone and in various combinations, scribes like Shane McAnally, Jesse Jo Dillon, Trevor Rosen and Kacey Musgraves are offering vivid portraits of conflicted men and — mostly — women, along with nuanced depictions of small-town life that skips the rah-rah romanticizing of heartland America. In a sense, they’re the spiritual progeny of songwriters like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Donnie Fritts and Steve Earle, who changed Nashville from the inside out during the 1970s.
Clark in particular stands poised to challenge expectations about what Nashville sounds like in the 2010s — and not just because she is a lesbian in a notoriously conservative medium. 12 Stories is full of deft turns of phrase and sharp insights into the messiness of modern romance. On the rip-roaring “Illegitimate Children,” she describes a drunken hook-up and delivers the title phrase like a punch line. In stark contrast, “Take a Little Pill” examines prescription drug addiction, and the lilting melody only underscores the spiritual angst such drugs are hoped to cure.