With a profusion of song titles such as "Damn Right," "Cowboy Days" and "Not Enough Tequila," Terri Clark's new "Life Goes On" might arouse suspicion that she's trading on the party-hearty vogue of trailer-park sweetheart Gretchen Wilson. Clark, however, was a "redneck woman" long before being a redneck woman was cool. Or, if not quite a redneck, then at least an unreconstructed cowgirl singer.
Born in Montreal but raised on the rodeo-rich prairies of Alberta, Clark was the only successful female hat act in Nashville -- and the only one wearing boots, tank tops and jeans -- during the decade leading up to Gretchen Wilson's much-heralded arrival. The pro forma "Honky Tonk Song" might force the issue of Clark's pedigree a bit, however tongue-in-cheek its flirtation with cliches about good ol' boys, tears 'n' beer and NASCAR might be. Yet other than that innocuous misstep and a couple of empty-headed ballads, Clark's sixth studio album updates the verities of classic country music with robust, big-beat arrangements and an abundance of spirit and conviction.
The record's first single, the steel guitar-steeped "She Didn't Have Time," speaks to nagging issues of gender and class as seen through the eyes of a resilient single mom. "Her day was a factory and evening survival, and night was exhaustion and sleep," Clark laments on behalf of the song's put-upon protagonist. "Sometimes she felt like life was passin' her by." Per the song's title, the woman might have cried about her circumstances, but didn't have the luxury of doing so. Her story ends happily, but from the way her ex walks out on her and their 5-year-old daughter to the way the woman steadfastly taxis the girl to ballet, piano and T-ball, the uplift is earned, unlike so much of what passes for transcendence on country radio today.
Over the course of the album's dozen tracks, Clark broaches adult themes ranging from socioeconomic stagnation ("Bigger Windows") to starting over ("Everybody's Gotta Go Sometime") to fighting to hold a family together ("Tear It All Down"). Several songs mine heartbreak; "I Wish He'd Been Drinkin' Whiskey," replete with all-too-real intimations of domestic violence, is the most trenchant.
Robust and tuneful, Clark's conversational alto renders credible even the most by-the-numbers of these scenarios. Shoring up the proceedings is supple, strapping accompaniment from a fired-up cast of first-call session pros, including the likes of Bruce Bouton, Dan Dugmore and Paul Franklin on steel, and Stuart Duncan and Aubrey Haynie on fiddle. All of it is galvanized by the punchy, guitar- and groove-rich production of Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, music as meaty as the themes that Clark assays.
In the end, though, it is Clark's believable, down-to-earth persona that puts across her meditations on the blues as lived -- and overcome. She's come a long way from Medicine Hat, where her father worked as a long-haul trucker and her mother as a secretary -- and where Clark waited tables in a Chinese restaurant to scratch enough money together to move to Nashville in the early '90s. "Yeah, I've come a few miles," she admits to the ineluctable beat-and-twang of "Bigger Windows." "But I'm still that girl with my nose pressed against the window of the world / Lookin' through a windshield of possibilities."