Terri Clark: “The Long Way Home”

long way home

Terri Clark’s The Long Way Home bears a title that splits the difference between two Dixie Chicks records– Home and Taking the Long Way— which may not be intentional, but it’s illuminating nevertheless: Clark’s album is indeed pitched somewhere between those two recordings, not quite comfortable in either the neo-traditionalist camp of Home or the more straightforward pop sound of Taking the Long Way. There are elements of both of those albums, to be sure, but it’s ultimately something a little different: A record that plays nicely within the confines of poppy, mainstream country, but also seeks to reclaim the spirit and attitude of more traditional country music.

And just like the Chicks did with the first track on Home, Clark begins her album by invoking the spirit of Johnny Cash. Her “Gypsy Boots” is more ham-fisted in the way it summons the Man in Black, but at least she has the musical goods to back it up; the song is written within the structure of a traditional blues song, though the production borrows from the best, fiercest brand of what Nashville has to offer today. The track that follows is even more of a throwback: “If You Want Fire” is a country-rock anthem that was written, the singer says, as a sort of tribute to Tom Petty. And it’s a success, both in its journeyman guitar and drum build-up and its lyric, which speaks to the consequences and pain that frequently accompany passion and drive.

There are echoes of those tracks scattered throughout the rest of the recording– “Poor Girls Dream” is like a goofier but still irresistible younger cousin to the neo-blues of “Gypsy Boots,” and “If I Could Be You” layers keyboard and organ in a way that recalls the Heartbreakers– but most of the other songs are ballads. And if the upbeat numbers filter classic roots-music trappings through the sound of contemporary country, the ballads are similarly pitched between folk, outlaw country, and mainstream pop ballads. There are a pair of standouts: “What Happens in Vegas (Follows You Home)” is a winning storytelling song about the consequences of recklessness, and musically it’s a ringer for Gram Parsons. Meanwhile, closing number “You Tell Me” is a lovely and sad lover’s duet with Johnny Reid.

There are some talented musicians on the other songs, too– most crucially, Vince Gill– but many of these slower numbers blend into the background, lacking the fire of the surrounding songs (or, for that matter, the earthy twang of the best Dixie Chicks ballads). Even so, The Long Way Home is a noteworthy album. Clark has been playing within the confines of mainstream country since the 90s, and she never quite struck it big in the pop world like her contemporary Shania Twain did. But here, she brings a wisdom that only a veteran of the scene could possess: She’s played by Nashville’s rules long enough to know how it’s done, but also what’s missing from most mainstream country, and this fine recording goes a long way toward finding a middle ground, thoroughly modern in its sound but old-fashioned in its attitude. And that makes it feel like a very different kind of album than most other Nashville releases in 2009– it’s actually authentic, in touch with the music’s roots but not embarrassed about where it is today, and that alone makes it worth investing in.

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