Roots and Wings

Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!

Okay, so it’s not as dramatic as that, Mr. Corleone, but I do believe I won’t ever shake this utterly unexpected happy feeling I continue to harbor in my dark lupine soul for country music.

[Loba Note: I guess it would be more appropriate to state that I harbor this love in the darkness where a soul should theoretically exist…]

No, not all country music. I’ve already established that there was a definite dimming of my country music love a few years ago. And yet I continue to keep tabs on a select few who succeeded in rising above the intrinsic issues I continue to have with the genre.

Terri Clark is one of Loba’s Chosen Few.

She’s a bit of a black sheep in the country family, to be sure. First, start with the fact that she’s not really “country,” by the xenophobic Amuhrakin definition of the word. Born in Montréal and raised in Medicine Hat, Clark is one of those “furraners” that we don’t take to liking all that much down here in the States. However, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, when she was 18 years old, which means that she’s spent more of her life here than among her own people. I guess that counts for something (or at least makes me wonder if her grasp on sanity is as questionable as my own).

Next is the fact that Clark is unrepentantly country in the best sense of the word. While many within the genre, including a bulk of the red-hot-at-the-time female artists, decamped to that in-between land called “Crossover Track” back in the late 90s, churning out tarted-up poppy drivel that barely qualified as country music, Clark stuck to her guns and her cowboy hats. Every single one of her albums is filled with songs that won’t ever be heard on heavy rotation on rock-lite radio stations that typically turn up their noses to music that includes wondrous instruments like banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and slide guitars. Some of Clark’s songs even include {gasp} cowbell.

[Loba Tangent: Okay, I’m not really sure how I feel about the cowbell songs. However, I am a bit smitten by the enthusiasm with which Clark takes to the…er, instrument.]

It’s this dedication to the roots of the country genre that keeps me coming back to Clark. Admittedly, though, I’ve been a fair-weather fan at best for several years. I continued to purchase her new releases but found them decidedly less and less consistent. True, every album has included several songs that were enjoyable, but not since the double-whammy of How I Feel and Fearless, the albums that respectively pulled me in and locked me down as a lifelong fan, had I felt holistically happy with her new offerings. I didn’t even bother to buy her 2009 release, The Long Way Home (although I do remember wishing for a title mashup of this with the Dixie Chicks’ last studio album, Taking the Long Way). I wasn’t really feeling much love for music in general at that point in my life and I think Clark was merely one of many of my favorite artists who didn’t get much Loba Lovin’ at that time.

That is, until her latest release. I purchased and downloaded Roots and Wings from Amazon on Friday afternoon, and I have listened to it every day since. I’m listening to it right now as I write this review, in fact.

Oh, this is a good one, denizens. Everything that I have always loved about Clark is there, from start to finish: catchy country hooks, clever lyrics that are playful and poignant and all stops in between, and gorgeous vocals that slip from roadhouse to lullaby with enviable ease.

In fact, I’m going to have to give the paw of approval to every song on this album. Clark kicks things off with “Wrecking Ball,” which hasn’t failed yet to get my feet tapping and me laughing with each listen (“Woman on a mission / Pure demolition”), and continues along at a solid pace as she slams out of the park common country tropes with grace, joy, and beauty. No, if you play a Clark song backward, you’re not going to get back your house, your truck, your wife, and your dog…but play them forward and you’ll get a glimpse of the greatness that honest country music has to offer.

I don’t know if I can even narrow down this collection of songs to one or two favorites, but if I had to select ones to praise above others, I’d go with “The One” for capturing so wonderfully the essence of what everyone wants to find at least once in this lifetime, “Beautiful and Broken” for its reserved elegance, and “Lonesome’s Last Call” for the respectful way it tips its 10-gallon hat, in sound and sentiment, to old school country.

Even the final two new songs on this album, “We’re Here For a Good Time” and “Flowers in the Snow,” have redeemable qualities even though I feel that they strike a slightly discordant tone in comparison with the rest of the album. “Good Time” is actually a pretty good song, with a happy-go-lucky sound reminiscent of a Margaritaville standard, but there’s something overly processed about the track that seems a little whiffy of auto-tuning. I hate auto-tuning. Unless it’s this. And I think “Flowers in the Snow” suffers only because it comes right on the peppier heels of “Good Time” and ends the new songlist on a decidedly somber note. However, on its own, it’s another classic example of Clark’s ability to write/co-write songs that honor the true sound of country music.

Then there is “Smile.”

This is actually the reason that I bought Roots and Wings. Clark wrote “Smile” in honor of her mother, who died in April 2010 after a 3-year battle with cancer. I’m still trying to sort through the flotsam of emotions that my own mom’s death (barely more than a month after Clark’s loss) has stirred up, but I have discovered that there is an undeniable solace to be found in the words of tribute and love penned by someone who knows first-hand how it feels to lose someone to the unfairness of disease. In fact, I think only “Always,” written and performed with heart-mending beauty by my friend Craig Bevan, has provided me with more comfort than this song has given me, even in the short time since I first heard it.

Of all the things that Clark has a right to be proud of from her career, I hope she knows what a gift she has given her listeners with this particular song.

So there you go, denizens. If you enjoy country music at all, give Roots and Wings a chance. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

Photo from Terri Clark’s Flickr Stream.