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Saturday
Feb162008

A Perfect Day, A More Perfect Night

It's not even 7:30 in the morning, and the Buddy List and AOL Instant
Messenger Traffic is already bling-blinging like J-Lo's parting gifts from
P-Diddy. Everyone online already knows that "I Just Wanna Be Mad" -- the
first single from Terri Clark's just released Pain To Kill is Top 5, making
her the only woman in Billboard's Country Singles Top 10 -- but this is the
wake-up where we find out how first week sales of the album hailed by The
Miami Herald as "her best work yet" and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune as "a
triumphant return to form" fared.

Like some small town party-line, everyone's asking everyone every few
minutes. At home, Terri Clark is contemplating her place in an increasingly
Adult Contemporary/Pop marketplace where glamour is far more important than fiddles and anorexia is a better calling card than songs that speak to the
gut of working people.

And me, I'm sitting at my computer -- knowing the hours invested, hating
that it always comes down to this. Always comes down to how does it open, is the single a hit, how do they look. When you live in the star-making
machinery that Joni Mitchell so righteously wrote, impaled and sang about,
you can often get crushed between the gears. You can give it your heart, work 'round the clock, pull every favor -- and then something unforeseen falls
out of the sky, rendering all that exertion moot.

So you sit, and you wait, and you hope, and you dread. You deny,
fantasize, get real and wait some more. And then the one you've been waiting
for: 33,487 - she's #5. Terri Clark, a girl some people felt had checked out
with her introspective singer/songwriter project, was back with her biggest
opening week position yet. Nestled between the king of rock & roll Elvis
Presley and multi-platinum blond Faith Hill. Weighing in between two
heavyweights the week following both the People's Choice Awards (where Faith won big) and the American Music Awards (where husband McGraw did even better), with no TV time, just strong connection and fly-over people to carry her.

Here was a hard country girl, built like -- as one New Yorker so aptly
put it -- "a real wo-man," singing songs that were almost defiantly country,
bulked up yet, but not trying to pass for lite rock or a power ballad.
Everyone was IMing Terri, telling her to IM her manager. He couldn't IM her,
because her privacy filter was intercepting him… and he couldn't get through
on her phone, because she had her mother on waiting for the news.

And finally, she IMed him. She heard. She knew. She reacted. "I'm going
to faint…" she typed. "No, I'm going to throw up."

But a #5 debut… especially for a girl the naysayers in a tough industry
in a fallow time would argue was about counted out… was an amazing thing! Not quite a miracle like the sightings of the Blessed Virgin or a blind man
regaining sight, but something that restores one's faith in the public's
willingness to buy country music. Honest to gawd real bone-deep country, that twangs and has fiddles and steel guitars. The stuff about real life, how it
is, how it isn't -- not it ought to be -- like some vein let open with a bit
of rusty barbed wire, torn jagged and gushing crimson and pain.

There was a shrill sound on the other end of the phone. She was giddy,
laughing, crying -- all at once -- flooded with every emotion that has
anything to do with joy, relief, gratitude. This was the kind of moment
artists who're walking the line between in the game and over hold their
breath for, the arrival knocking them down from the depravation of denial,
the wishful thinking smothered for fear of the jinx.

My fingers just kept clicking over the keyboard -- writing the press
release, re-writing sections, moving copy around. Looking for quotes. Looking
for just the right words to make people who hadn't heard this music
understand why it mattered, why this record was important, what this record
said about a woman on the verge, words that weren't mine - but some impartial bystanders. And boy, were they there - People ("a forceful declaration of independence"), USA Today ("an unrepentant honky tonker), The New York Post ("an earthy woman who sings about living life to the max"), The Dallas Morning News ("waves the banner for real women everywhere") and The Washington Post ("a straight shooting lonely heart" and "a tough talking cowgirl keeping it real") - loud, proud and openly defiant to conventional 6-1-5 business.

Just that morning Clark's face and guitars had appeared on the opening
page of USA Today's web site… the cyber version of a profile hailing the
3-time fan voted Canadian Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year as "the anti-diva." It's some kind of cosmic, karmic alignment when it all
goes right: the single is #5, the album is #5 and there's a feature in USA
Today and a major review in The Washington Post. ALL the same day…It just doesn't happen like that.

We're not even close to open, here at that small freakishly boutique
company I run -- and it's already beyond whatever one dares dream for an act
trying to punch their way back to the table. After all, Joe's Garage is a
place where it's about the music and the story and the reasons for believing.
Even with the big clients, there's gotta be a reason to believe -- or there's
no reason to be here. And even with all that, there are no guarantees, so you
chew your nails, push your cuticles back too hard, scratch your nose and pull your hair…

Then sometimes, it works. You don't even wanna believe it's the result of
a bunch of people all on the same page, working hard - executing as they're
supposed to. It would confound everything that is daily living. Yet… or And
so… And there it is.

And there it was, too, in USA Today. Considering the course this woman
had taken -- inside herself with a fiercely introspective project called
Fearless that was the polemic of her rowdy no shame, no gain, you can't get
me down cowgrrrrrl-power charged country that had ignited the airwaves on her three previous efforts -- our nation's newspaper recognized that Pain To Kill wasn't a capitulation, but an expansion on both realities.

Without blinking, though surely the result of many sleepless night, Terri
Clark wove a seamless cloth of soul-searching words and ass-kicking
backbeats. And it's not all about shooting out the lights -- none of us have
the stamina for that -- but the notion that even a ballad with a backbone can
resonate in deeper places if you'll imbue it with some bravery and some
insight.

There is hard country on Pain To Kill: keening fiddles that bend into
each other and steel guitars that collect the notes into buckets of tears and
harmonies that are sweetness stretched taut over regret or dignity. And if
Terri Clark can plug in, turn up and burn down a whirlwind "I Wanna Do It
All," with the hunger for life that most people would find terrifying, she's
also able to walk away from something that's close ("I Just Called To Say
Good-Bye") with the rhythm of tires circularly swallowing pavement at
daybreak and accept that alone can be the better option ("Not A Bad Thing")
with grace and tranquility.

Pain To Kill is a big girl record. It examines the issues of being more
than 20-something with honesty, compassion for self, dignity for everyone
involved. It pushes understanding -- even as it refuses to see oneself as
diminished. Flourish, damnit, this record says -- through the pain, the
disappointment, the getting screwed over. We're put here to thrive, not
survive… and as Auntie Mame proclaimed onstage all those years ago, "Life is a banquet and most of you poor so-and-so's are starving to death."

Terri Clark refuses to starve. And she also refuses to secede or recede.
Yes, she's been hurt, crippled, reduced to quivering tissue and tears. But
she knows that to quit trying, to pull up the draw bridges and refuse to come
out and play is to begin dying right here, right now. It's not the ache
that's gonna get you, she reasons, but the numbness and emotional atrophy
that sets in from removing oneself from the rollercoaster that is life.

Terri Clark, fresh from a whirlwind 10 days of nonstop promotional
activities to set up Pain To Kill, is on the other line -- a little hoarse,
but clearly happy. "I can't believe it. I can't believe it," she intones like
some mantra doled out by the Maharishi.

She didn't give up and she didn't give in… No, the very tall, very solid
tomboy dug in, started trying to graft the two things that mattered to her:
lyrics that meant something and the will to rock - and she connected.

While this was prom day… The one where the results come out…. Terri
Clark didn't get to slow down and enjoy it. Oh, no… She had two soundchecks and interviews and stacks of things to sign, people to call, people to see, heck, laundry to do…

But by 6 p.m., when the Mirror -- one of those Nashville restaurants that
is more for the bohemian crowd -- started to fill with friends and
well-wishers, it was clear this was Terri's day. Everyone in attendance, from
the head of A&R to the head of programming at Country Music Television to her producer and some of the many writers, was as happy as the artist before them.

Treating to the crowd to a few of the songs that brought everyone to that
day and celebration, Terri Clark sat on a tall stool, looked out at the crowd
and told the story of playing her first industry function. It was a tribute
to Merle Haggard and people like Emmylou Harris were onstage playing, but
Sony Tree head Donna Hilley believed in getting up the new writers just
signed to the hallowed publishing company -- and so the girl who'd spent two
years on a stool at Tootsies found herself before this crowd of who's who.

"It was the most nerve-wracking thing in the world," she confessed. "And
you know… ten years later, looking out at you, I'm still a nervous wreck. The
difference is, now the faces are a lot of my friends."

She would play a couple more songs for the Invite Only crowd -- clearly
shining with her strong, muscular tenor. But it was towards the end of the
brief acoustic performance where the real meaning of the day carried.

Wiping tears from her eyes, moved in ways one can't describe, Terri Clark
collected herself before a business that's not known for its unequivocal
support of the fiscally faltering stars. Smiling through the wet, she made
one last point, "When I came to this town, I came with a dream… and all these years later, I still believe in the power of a dream and the passion of a
song. That's where it begins and ends - and it's what's brought me here,
through everything."

As powerful as that was - and it was a rare moment of real clarity in a
business of façade -- it paled compared to Terri Clark and her band onstage
at the place it all-started for the wet-behind-the-ears-teenager-taking
-the-bus-to-the-combat-zone-that-was-Lower-Broadway-in-the-90s Tootsies
Orchid Lounge. Tootsies, with its long legend of the people who drank their
between Grand Ole Opry sets at the Ryman, the losers and dreamers and
songwriters with names like Kristofferson who ran tabs and tales on the
kindness of the owner Tootsie Bess.

But this night -- with a second snow storm blowing in to cripple Music
City -- the legend was all Terri Clark's. The story of a girl who believed in
a dream and the power of a song, who let it sustain her when many would've
flinched at the dip and gone home. Here was a red-blooded woman in a t-shirt
and jeans, taking country's legacy back from the phalanx of glamazons in the
name of music, bringing it closer to the root of Waylon and Willie than the
mainstream's seen in far too long.

As the big fat snowflakes spun 'round in the beams being tossed from
klieg lights like so much candy sugar sparkling on the night, Terri Clark was
flecked with something else that glittered: sweat. Onstage, burning through
the songs her fans -- some of whom had brought sleeping bags and had started camping out at 3 p.m. two days prior in the merciless cold -- had come to use to empower their own lives, Terri Clark knew the ultimate release: the force of a song born down hard on and squeezed for every last drop of emotion.

It wasn't just her songs, either, taking that serious beating that comes
from a no-nonsense working band -- led by a singer who just wants to be one
more muscle working with the group rather than bouncing along on top of the
collective. Sitting on a stool alone, she re-visited the covers that
supported her in that smoke-thickened room -- the Judds and Reba, Tammy
Wynette and Loretta Lynn, George Jones and James Taylor's "Bartender Blues" - and grounded the music that defined her sound, that gave her the kick inside.

But it was really about a full-immersion "Stay With Me" that made the
kohl-eyed beauty every bit the in-command rogue that Rod Stewart was at his peak. It was the grinding commitment of Sippie Wallace's "Love Me Like A Man" that was decimated with a wink and a promise to be the kind of tire-rotating realization most people won't dare dream of, let alone deliver on. There was even a down-in-the-groove workout out on Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good" that turned up the sticky without ever letting go of the wheel.

Terri Clark -- who plays her guitar like she means it, who stands and
delivers with no fear, who has only herself and her music to bring -- stood
on the back stage at Tootsies and gave and gave and gave. At the end of a
long day, of too many blessings to consider without buckling under the weight of the gifts, Terri Clark gave it all away - because that's what she does.

As one of the people standing in the shadows, midwifing the dream and
supporting the process, it was a more perfect night to an already perfect
day. We are the ones always coming up short, not quite enough, seeing what could have rather than exulting in what is -- because the stakes are so high, because the dreams are so critical.

In my snow boots and my mittens, under a tent that trapped our body heat
to make the outdoors patio a little more palatable, the faces before Terri
Clark shone with something akin to rapture. They'd come for a release from
the frustrations, the tribulations, the stumbles, trips, knots and clots of
real life. Terri Clark understood that. And in that one moment, that one
place, we all understood how that feels.

Union communion whatever. As Clarence Spalding, her hyperintelligent
commando manager said with a smile, "Write this all down. Days like this
don't happen very often." He was right, of course, and he didn't even know
how deep it goes. Somewhere, there is a honky tonk angel with
nicotine-stained teeth, big hair and blue eye shadow reaching for a Pabst and
nodding knowingly -- right next to a girl in pink and green winking
affirmatively.

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