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Clark flies high with 'Better Things'

By Joel Bernstein, September 1995

Terri Clark has better things to do nowadays.

After years of trying to make it in country music, she finds herself on the verge of being the industry's newest "overnight sensation."

That leaves her with lots of things to do, including putting together her first band. Clark is not a novice performer - she spent many years as "house singer" at Nashville's legendary Tootsie's Orchid Lounge - but she's never had a full-time band.

Nor has she done any touring. She'll be doing plenty this fall, opening shows for the likes of Clay Walker, George Strait, Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Lawrence, plus a Jim Beam-sponsored tour with James House. "We're gonna be busy," she said happily from Nashville, before running off to another band rehearsal.

Clark spoke shortly after the release of her initial single, "Better Things To Do." The single received an enthusiastic response from radio programmers, but it was too early to know just how high it might get.

It was not too early for the excitement to hit, however. "I'm very excited, elated, walking on air", she said Then she added, "I'm keeping my fingers crossed and saying my prayers."

Clark's route to success is a more or less normal one for country music. Growing up in the small (population 40,000) town of Medicine Hat, Alberta, Clark developed dreams of a country music career at a young age. She was nine when she taught herself to play guitar, and her mother (a sometime folk singer) taught her the harmony parts to Everly Brother songs.

Asked about her influences, Clark listed "Reba, Patsy Cline, Ricky Skaggs, George Jones, Patty Loveless, Judds. I soaked it all in like a sponge. I like Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles. I don't think I really as a vocalist was influenced by anything other than country, although I do listen to other music."

Heading to Nashville in 1987, shortly after graduating high school, Clark quickly talked (and sang) herself into a job at Tootsie's. To make ends meet, she had to also do the usual odd jobs like waiting tables and selling boots. And she also had to deal with a steady stream of rejections from record execs.

Her break finally came when songwriter Keith Stegall, who was a fan of Clark's, became the head of A&R (the people who scout out talent) at Mercury. After a live audition for label president Luke Lewis, she was quickly signed to her first record deal. "I feel I'm really ready for it now," she said. I've got better songs. I'm better vocally. I've been working out in a gym, and I'm ready physically".

Her debut album is a powerhouse product, with the initial single being only the tip of the iceberg. The vocals are strong with echoes of Patty Loveless).

The songs, almost all written or co-written by Clark, are catchy and commercial. They'refamiliar, but not in a way that breeds contempt. The label has come up with the term "turbo traditional" as a marketing slogan for Clark, and unlike many such devices, this one actually fits. This brings up an obvious question. How was Terri Clark turned down by so many people? Has she gotten that much better, or were they all just myopic? Clark's answer says a lot about how business is done in Nashville.

"I'm not that much better now," she said. "I'm better than I was at 18. My songwriting really started to improve. But I'd go into execs offices and sit down with my guitar and play for them. They'd like me but say 'I can't do it. I just signed a female singer'. Some wouldn't even listen to me at all because they said they already had their female. There's a quota. Mercury is one label I respect. If they like something, they sign it."

Along with Clark, Mercury recently also released Kim Richey's debut.

Clark continued discussing the role of women in country music. "The top selling women artists all appeal to women. They sing women's songs You've got to tap into that. It's not something I do purposefully, it's just the way I feel and the way I write."

It's hard to listen to Clark's initial hit without thinking of The Statler Brothers' "Flowers On The Wall," which also recited a litany of unimportant activities helping one get over a broken relationship. But that song was one of hopeless despair; the singer not only had nothing better to do than play solitaire, but he didn't even care whether he had a full deck. Clark sees her song as "a positive song about getting on with your life. You'd rather be doing silly, unimportant, things than sit around crying over him. It's about being strong."

The activities in her song may be trivial, but they're not unproductive. And the key line in the song is "getting on with my life", an idea which would never have occurred to the "Flowers" singer.

While Clark's singing may remind people of Patty Loveless or other powerful vocalists, there's another established country singer that her album could be linked with.

Many of the songs on Holly Dunn's latest album were co-written by Dunn with Chris Waters, Dunn's brother, and Tom Shapiro. Many of the songs on Clark's album were co-written by Clark with Waters and Shapiro. So there are a lot of similarities in musical style, yet there are also plenty of differences, which would be mainly attributable to Clark. "I bring a different character (than Holly). My stuff reflects a more aggressive tough edge. Musically, a lot of the beats are my idea. They (Chris and Tom) do a lot of melodic stuff ."

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