Brandy Clark’s debut album, 12 Stories, was a critical darling, and instantly made her a singer to watch. When Clark finally announced her second album with high anticipation, she also revealed that she was working with producer Jay Joyce on Big Day in a Small Town. Admittedly, I was taken aback by the news as I haven’t enjoyed when Joyce has produced country albums in the past, most notably Little Big Town’s Painkiller. And after hearing the album’s debut single “Girl Next Door,” I was even further discouraged by Joyce’s production. However, “Girl Next Door” appeared to be a radio friendly single to appease her label because Brandy Clark delivers some quality country music with Big Day in a Small Town, even with a production that has a little edge.
Brandy Clark also said the album will have a bit of a concept to it. Big Day in a Small Town isn’t a straight forward concept album with a cohesive story from track 1 to track 11, but rather an album that follows a theme with unconnected scenes that provide a snapshot into the harder, yet more realistic side of life in small town. “Soap Opera” sets the theme and style for the album. Everyone has their own relationship issues from ex-spouses to nosey in-laws, and the song focuses on the local hairdresser and bartender who hear the bulk of these complaints from their customers. Clark works a few TV soap opera titles into the lyrics. The production follows a typical upbeat country-style with banjo plucks, guitars and a nice organ ring throughout the song. My only complaint with this song is that I hear a little too much of Jennifer Nettles in Clark’s twangy vocals, which doesn’t suit Brandy as a singer.
A tambourine shake fades into the snare of “Girl Next Door,” which is a great transition. While the songs aren’t related in content, that kind of focus on transition details adds an element of cohesion to the album and virtually ties the songs together. While I like the lyrics of “Girl Next Door,” the production sounds like a dance-remix of what used to be a country song. In the mix of the whole album, though, the production of “Girl Next Door” is an outlier. The acoustic mid-tempo “Homecoming Queen” follows. The song looks at local high school heroes who haven’t had the same type of pomp and glamour in their life after graduation. The popular homecoming queen is now a mother of three living down the road from her own mother. The song sends a message of how life doesn’t quite work out like one planned. “Broke” is a look at a farming family who is, well, broke. Brandy Clark provides several humorous lines in the song, providing a light-hearted take on poverty. “The white left the picket, the fleas left the hound. And even the crickets have moved into town.” “Broke” has fitting upbeat production with heavy guitars in the melody.
Following is a standard country ballad in “You Can Come Over.” With a piano leading the production, the song carries a bit of blues influence. “You Can Come Over” tells a story of unfinished love. Told from her point of view, the woman gets a call from her ex who wants to meet up. Knowing full well if they get comfortable with a glass of wine that the lustful tension will grow, she tells him that he can come over but can’t come in. It’s a good approach to the common “we still have feelings for each other” type of song. The final piano note reverbs into the next song, “Love Can Go To Hell,” as another great transition ties the two songs together. And moving from trying to get over someone into a full fledge heartbreak songs further connects these two songs. “Love Can Go To Hell” takes the approach of personifying and cursing the feeling of love. The lyrics are great as Brandy uses that point of view on love to write an excellent heartbreaker, sung beautifully with a catchy chorus.
The album’s title track takes a more grand look at a few different scenes from the soap opera of a small town life. Dealing with darker topics like teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, and a married man wanting to spend some time with “a jailbait checkout queen” at Walmart, Brandy Clark pulls no punches as she fearlessly breezes by the situations with a touch of black humor. Being the title track of a thematic album, the chorus feels quite anthemic with several voices chiming in on the harmony. Another album standout is “Three Kids No Husband.” This solemn song tells the story of the hurdles the single mom jumps through. She has trouble making rent and keeping the house clean, all while trying to keep the kids on track in school and working at the local diner. It’s a well told story, with a production and style that fits right in Brandy Clark’s wheelhouse.
Brandy Clark takes a humorous approach to heartbreak with “Daughter.” After getting worked over by a smooth talking guy, Clark wishes for karma to catch up with him. “I hope you have a daughter, and I hope that she’s a fox. Daddy’s little girl just as sweet as she is hot. She can’t help but love them boys who love to love and leave them girls, just like her father.” “Daughter” has great throwback country production, and Kacey Musgraves provides vocal harmonies during the chorus. It’s a fun, light-hearted song with a catchy chorus and some great lyrics.
Clark keeps the traditional country going with “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’.” The song takes a traditional country groove with an acoustic guitar and cranks it up with an electric guitar during the chorus. It’s country music with some rock edge mixed in, and it sounds great. Big Day in a Small Town ends with “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” Clark sings from the point of view of a woman who’s just lost her father. She worries about her mother will adjust to life alone, her brother has fallen off the wagon, and the economy’s crash hasn’t been easy on them. Clark ties the song together by saying “since you’ve gone to heaven, the whole world’s gone to hell.” “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” exemplifies the country music notion of three chords and the truth.
Brandy Clark is committed to not only making great country music, but moving the genre forward. For those who defend crappy Nashville pop as country music evolving, Big Day in a Small Town is a truly great example of country music evolving. With the help of Jay Joyce, the album has songs firmly planted in country’s traditional styles, yet they’re given room to explore and reach to different heights and areas. Big Day in a Small Town is the best example of a modern country album. With a great production and songs that standalone well, yet fit into a nice, cohesive theme, Brandy Clark has followed up a great debut album with an even better album.