Every week, we tell you about an album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town.
The image of a small town—the neighbors who know everything about each other, the people who are defined by high school successes, the people living paycheck to paycheck in flyover country—is a cliché often invoked by politicians during primary season. It’s an ideal that big city politicians can use, even though the lives and concerns of people in those small towns aren’t really being adequately addressed by any of them. Small town denizens are left to see their neighborhoods idealized while their actual lives are left unarticulated. This is the real appeal of country music in a lot of ways: a country song about how rain makes corn into whiskey means more and is more relatable to someone from small town, flyover country than a song by Pitbull or whoever.
Brandy Clark, one of country’s best songwriters (she’s written for a murderer’s row of current hitmakers) devotes the entirety of her sophomore album Big Day in a Small Town—following up 2013’s 12 Stories—to chronicling small town living, from poor people drinking generic Coke (“Broke”) and the high school diva whose life comes at her fast (“Homecoming Queen”) to the single mom fighting against the crush of obligations (“Three Kids No Husband”) to all the minutiae that feels important when you’re in a small town that doesn’t even have a Waffle House (the title track). Clark fills this record out with stories of small town life that feel like the real deal; like she knows exactly who every song and lyric is about. Small Town delivers on the superlatives critics lathered on 12 Stories—which was fantastic, but was miscast as a potential “savior” of country music—and feels classic in a way that country albums recently haven’t felt. With the exception of some curse words, this feels like it could have topped country charts in 1966, 1986, or 2016. It’s one of this year’s best.
Produced by Jay Joyce—who helmed Brothers Osborne’s Pawn Shopand Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstoodand who gives Small Town both muscle and grace-- Clark at least co-wrote everything here, and her greatest strength is the tiny, specific details she wedges into every line. The fleas leave the dog in “Broke,” and the cologne of the potential boyfriends of an asshole ex’s potential karmic daughter of “Daughter” is cheap, and everyone is a star in their own daytime drama on “Soap Opera.” The album’s centerpiece is the lead single, “Girl Next Door,” which is the foot-in-ass country anthem for women in 2016, as it demands that a partner looking for the girl next door kicks rocks and find her, because he won’t find her in Clark. I give it six months before it’s a karaoke staple of the magnitude of “Before He Cheats.”
For the second time this month, the best country album released in any given week is by a woman, which even people who don’t listen to country can tell you is a marked improvement over an endless onslaughts of the Canaan Smiths or the Chase Rices. There’s the temptation to paint artists like Clark and Maren Morris and Chris Stapleton as something different than what’s on the radio, and that’s fair, since they are different than what’s on the radio. But ultimately, it’s hard to imagine Clark caring about or trying to “take country music back” from the bros: she’s been better than them for a half decade already and taking their money for songwriting credits to the point where she’d be punching down to try to take them on. She’s on some god level mode right now, and Small Town is an instant classic.