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Terri Clark gets real about her 20-plus years in country music

Andrea Warner

“I’m waiting for Ashton Kutcher to walk out and tell me I’ve been punked.”

Terri Clark laughs loudly over the phone from her vacation spot in cottage country, somewhere in Ontario. In a few weeks, she’ll be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame during the live broadcast of the CCMA Awards. Shania Twain, the biggest country superstar Canada’s ever produced — and who was often pitted against Clark by media and radio and TV programmers in the '90s — will be hosting the awards show.

It’s been 31 years since Clark graduated high school and relocated from Medicine Hat, Alta., to Nashville, Tenn., and it’s been 23 years since she released her self-titled debut record, which ended up blowing up the charts on both sides of the border. In 2004, Clark became the first female Canadian musician to become a member of the historic Grand Ole Opry. This fall marks the release of the Juno Award-winning artist's 11th studio album, Raising the Bar, and she’s still on the road all the time. In part, this is why she uses the word “surreal” to describe her impending Hall of Fame induction.

“It doesn’t seem possible that I’m already at this point where something like that can actually happen,” Clark says. “And I’m not taking it lightly. It’s a tremendous honour. I feel like I’m still in the midst of my career, in the middle of it. I don’t feel like there’s any bookends here. I’m at chapter 15 in a 30-chapter book, so I can’t wait to see what happens next. But it’s quite the midway mark, for sure, to be honoured like this.”

Clark spoke with CBC Music about the ups and downs of her decades-spanning career in the music industry. She holds nothing back as she reflects on everything from starting out in a Nashville dive bar to being one of the queens of country, navigating the industry’s booms and busts, the worsening sexism on country radio and her newfound role behind the mic: interviewing famous friends like Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.

Part of me was like, how is Terri Clark not already in the Hall of Fame?

I feel young for this. I feel like, how’s this happened already? But everyone else online was going, “Why hasn’t this happened yet?” And I’m like, because I was a fetus! You’ve gotta prove yourself and get a body of work behind you for that to happen. It’s really a cool thing. The whole weekend at the CCMAs is gonna be amazing this year, and I’m very excited about it.

My mom passed away in 2010, and she was kind of the person who took me to Nashville and believed in me from the beginning. And she not being a part of this, or there, is the hardest part of it, obviously. But her sisters are flying in from Calgary and P.E.I. to be there for her and for me. And a lot of my friends and family are going to be at both the dinner the night before the broadcast and at the show. So I’m getting so much support from people around me that I care about and love. It’s like a love fest right now. It’s a beautiful life and a charmed life, and I do not take it for granted and realize that I’m the luckiest person I know, really truly.

What did it look like for a young Canadian woman trying to make it in Nashville in the '90s?

Well, first of all, I wasn’t telling anybody I was from Canada when I first moved there because I didn’t have a green card, and I didn’t wanna be deported. So I worked for cash. I played at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and lower Broadway was absolutely dangerous to be frequenting at that time. It’s a whole different place now. It’s like Mardi Gras every night down there. But I took the city bus down there. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a green card, I couldn’t get a job. So I played for tips in daylight hours because I wouldn’t be here now if I went down in the dark. And I was alone. It was very scary and lonely in a lot of ways. I remember calling my mom, just bawling my eyes out because I got off at the wrong bus stop, and I got lost and didn’t know where I was. And I’m 18, it’s a thousand degrees in the South. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m standing there sweating and crying, and I can’t tell if I’m crying or sweating or sweating or crying. It’s all just leaking everywhere. [Laughs]

I laugh about it now, but it was a traumatic experience. I called my mom and I said, “I wanna come home.” And she said, “Terri, if you do that, I don’t want you, when you’re 50 years old, to be sitting there going, ‘What woulda happened?’” And I just had my 50th birthday, and I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame, so I’m really glad I listened to her advice. She didn’t tell me I couldn’t come home. She just said, “I want you to know if you do this, and you come back, you might regret it someday.” But it was difficult…. I didn’t get my deal with Mercury Records until '94. So I was in Nashville for just about eight years before I actually got a record deal. So it was a long haul. And the competition and just the people I saw, everybody, every time I turned around someone was trying to get a record deal. I’m like, how in the hell are they gonna notice me with all these other people out here?

People sometimes have the impression that you went to Nashville and were an overnight success, but eight years is a long time.

There were a lot of heartbreaks. I got turned down by every label, every single one, some of them twice, and a lot of broken promises. But I got a publishing deal as a songwriter. And I believe I got that publishing deal based upon the fact that they saw the artist potential. I think my publishing deal came along in '91 or '92. So I was getting a bit of a paycheque for writing songs. They were kind of grooming me for a record deal. And a lot of those songs wound up on my first two records.

You’ve co-produced or produced a lot of your records yourself, and I feel like that doesn’t get much attention.

No, you know, I never felt like my production, guitar playing, or songwriting has gotten a lot of attention. If only that can get as much attention as the damn hat on my head, that would be awesome! That’s part of the reason I wanted to do the last tour as a complete solo tour across the country. I just went out by myself with guitars and sat there on a stool for two hours and told stories and just played all these songs solo. And part of the reason I wanted to do that was just to show that other dimension that I think a lot of people weren’t aware of or hadn’t seen. People just see what they’re given, and they go back to CMT 1997 all the time. And I’m like, that’s nice, but things have evolved since then. If you look at somebody like Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw now and then go back to 1996 and look at them, that’s a different artist. And it’s no different for people like me and Paul Brandt or people up here. I think we all get better as we go on.

With your radio show [Country Gold], you’re on the other side interviewing people — how is that for you, flipping the role?

It’s great, I love it. I feel like interviewing other artists is kind of like peeling back a curtain that a lot of people who are radio people or interviewers don’t have the same level of rapport as an artist does with an artist, especially ones who I have a history with, that I’ve toured with, that I have a friendship with, the ones from my era. We kind of all came out together and came up together.

There’s an unspoken camaraderie and “I got your back” to that, and loyalty. I get in the room with Mark Wills or Jo Dee Messina or even somebody like Reba [McEntire]. I got to interview Kenny [Rogers] and Dolly Parton. And it’s kind of a surreal interview with people like that. But the ones from my era that I have history with, it’s a whole different conversation. It’s more like being a fly on the wall between two friends that are hanging out talking about music. I mean, Sara Evans was awesome. She was just on fire about the lack of women on radio. She was so pissed off. Oh, my God, she was awesome. [Laughs] It’s like all we were missing was the Chardonnay. It was great. She was very candid, and I don’t know that she would’ve done that with a radio person. I think she did it with me because she felt comfortable enough to do that and felt a kinship. I’m not as angry, but I get it. Yeah, she was great. She spoke her mind, and I appreciate that when they come in and actually are honest.

I remember the Keith Hill "tomato" reference in 2015 where everyone was understandably very upset [Hill, a radio consultant, stated that “if you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out” and that “females” are the “tomatoes of our salad” while male country artists like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton were the lettuce]. I was reading an article on Tennessean from this year, and the stats for women on country radio have actually gotten worse in terms of who’s being played. It’s depressing.

It’s brutal. It’s brutal, and I’m not making fun of Sara for getting pissed, and she has every right to. Every woman does. And I’m putting out a single on the 27th of August, and I’m looking at the song. The record is very contemporary. It’s as good, if not better, than anything else out right now. It was written by the biggest hit-makers in Nashville. The track is super progressive. But I’m a female.

So I have high hopes, and I have a lot of faith, and I do believe I’ll get airplay, but I’ve gotta be realistic about my expectations, too, and realize that I’ve just given it my best shot. I’ve gone back into the studio three times to find the song, and I really, really left no stone unturned. So I’ve done my part, basically. There’s nothing more I can do. There’s nothing better I could do or give them right now. So if it doesn’t get played, I’m just looking at the fact that it’s not about the music. It really isn’t. Because there’s a lot of women making great music right now, and for whatever reason, research or testing or whatever — I don’t know when this dictated that they were only gonna play eight per cent female. I don’t know when that all happened. But boy, it’s changed a lot, that’s for sure.

Yeah, I was wondering how much you feel it has changed in your time in the industry.

Well, when you look at the '90s, my God, we had Martina and Faith and Shania and Reba and Jo Dee and LeAnn Rimes and Lee Ann Womack and all the LeAnns, and me. There was a lot of room for a lot of different women, and women were all different. They all had their own thing going on.

There’s such a narrow window for women right now that I don’t think there’s a lot of room for them — there’s not a ton of diversity because there’s only like, four of them, and you can’t get a ton of diversity if you’re only playing three or four. So it’s hard to really find that right now. And I think it’s out there. We’re just not being as exposed to it, which makes me sad. But it is what it is, and all we can hope is that slowly but surely it comes back around.

I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but I feel like a lot of your music and a lot of your role in your records has been a very deliberate disruption of the status quo.

Yes. I can’t sing what I don’t know and don’t feel. And I’m really kind of drawn to certain types of songs that a lot of women just wouldn’t do. They just wouldn’t hear themselves doing it. “Dirty Girl,” which is a song I had about 10 years ago, was written by a guy about a girl, and I completely rewrote it to first person, because I just liked it. Even my new single, “As Young as We Are Tonight,” it was a gravelly sounding male vocal demo, and somehow I just made believe. I’m like, “I don’t care. I’m gonna sing this song.” Although a lot of my songs are female-empowering, I’m attracted to a lot of songs a guy would do or you could hear a guy doing, the tougher sort of edge that they have.

So you’re being inducted. Shania Twain is hosting. When you first came out, both around the same time, people were constantly trying to — not necessarily pit you against each other, but you were the two names that people talked about. How surreal does it feel that 25 years later you are also connected in this moment?

It’s pretty cool. This is like a '90s throwback, this show. It’s really cool, the way it’s all come together. And I can’t wait to see her — I haven’t seen her in a long time — and talk to her and say hi. But yeah, people were comparing us a lot, and I’m talking apples and oranges. Shania Twain and I could not be farther apart, as far as — you can’t compare the two. It’s very, very different. And that was just the natural thing they would do. And to be clear, I lost. [Laughs] If they were gonna pit us up against each other, there ain’t no way.

Paul Brandt said to me one time back in the '90s — he came up to me backstage at an awards show, and he said, “Terri, I gotta tell ya,” he said, “I feel so bad for you.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Being up against Shania Twain, that would be like if Garth Brooks was Canadian right now.” I’m like, “You do have a point there! If Shania hadn’t been around, I would’ve just taken it all.” [Laughs] But she’s been awesome. She created history, and all the records she’s sold, she’s an international superstar. We had some wonderful women coming out of Canada in the '90s. Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain just set records with record sales. It was just such a great time for Canadians. It was amazing.

So what do the next 50 years look like for you?

I’m writing a book right now, and I’m hoping to finish it sometime next year. This year really got busy with everything going on with the album and all that, so I have to get back to it. And I’m hoping to do a whole bunch of touring in Canada next year, some festivals. I kind of laid low a little bit this year and haven’t done a whole lot. I’ve done some stuff in the US, but I’m hoping to get back up here and do more touring. I’m gonna continue making music. I might make a record that’s completely off the wall next and not even care and just do what I wanna do and do something kind of crazy.

I really don’t know what my plan is. I’m gonna continue taking advantage of opportunities that come my way. There’s no retirement in my future anytime soon. I just love what I do. I love touching people and connecting with people, and that’s the greatest gift of being an artist is the connection that we get with people and making them smile. It’s truly such a gift, and why would anybody ever wanna quit doing that?

The 2018 CCMA Awards will take place in Hamilton, Ont., on Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. (5 p.m. PT). It’ll be broadcast on CBC-TV and can also be streamed on


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