Terri Clark: Before the First of Her Greatest Hits (Part 1 of 2)

Singer-Songwriter Recalls Hard Times Prior to Having "Better Things to Do"

Terri Clark made a name for herself with the catchy country hit “Better Things to Do” in 1995, and in the ensuing decade, she further established herself as a true traditionalist. The musical highlights of her career are documented in the new CD, Greatest Hits: 1994-2004.

In the first part of a candid two-part interview with CMT.com, she discusses her early obsession with Reba McEntire, divorcing the first man she ever loved and getting a job offer at Hooters. In the second part, running Tuesday (Aug. 3), Clark talks about the audition that led to her deal with Mercury Records and why she keeps challenging herself through her music.

CMT: Do you remember the precise moment when you decided to move to Nashville?

Clark: I was 12 years old, lying in bed practicing my acceptance speech for my CMA female vocalist of the year award. I knew it. I just focused. I’m a very focused person. I knew I was different than all the other kids. They teased me when I went to school because I wore a belt buckle and I wanted to be Reba. I had my Reba McEntire Fan Club button on, and my biology teacher even made fun of me. Even the teachers thought I was a nerd. And I’d be like, “I have to go home because the CMA Awards are on tonight, and I have to set my tape!” Just so silly, but focused. I was obsessed with country music. I would get home from school, get my guitar out and sing. Then I’d do my homework, eat dinner and go right back downstairs to my room and start singing again until my parents banged three times on the ceiling and said, “It’s bedtime!”

During my teenage years, I tried to do well in school because I wanted something to fall back on if it didn’t work. The dream is great, but you always think, “What if?” I studied and studied and studied, and I was a B average, studying my brains out. All I could manage was a B because I was so obsessed with music. But I knew I was gonna go to Nashville. My mom and I would be cooking dinner, and I’d be sitting in the chair singing … Reba and Judds and Ricky Skaggs and George Jones and Ferlin Husky and Loretta Lynn or whoever, and she’d vocally coach me, like “You were a little pitchy on that note. We’ve got to get you to a certain point if we’re gonna take you to Nashville.” We just had these stars in our eyes. We were so naïve. But in a way, it was a blessing because when you’re naïve, you feel invincible, like nothing can happen to you.

If you had a photograph taken the day you moved to Nashville, what would you look like?

Big hair. This is 1987, granted. I had big hair, and I wore cowboy boots and jeans. I would probably have on a Judds or Reba McEntire T-shirt. That was when Randy Travis was the hottest thing. Holly Dunn, Rosanne Cash. I wore these little country-western scarves with the little rope thing on them, and I had a guitar attached to me — somewhere, somehow — with a shoestring wrapped around my wrist to keep someone from stealing it. That’s what I looked like. I was a walking country music billboard. I looked like these people that go to Fan Fair. I was a fan, but I wanted to be more than a fan. I wanted to connect with people the same way that Reba and the Judds and Barbara Mandrell and Skaggs and Loretta connected with me. I felt that real deep desire and passion to do that.

What was the Nashville bar scene like back then?

Demonbreun Street [near Music Row] was like wax museums and the Spaghetti Deli. In fact, I had a job at the Spaghetti Deli singing on weekends. I went to my dad’s wedding, and the guy who was running the Spaghetti Deli … must have been really high or something the day I told him I was going … because I came back the next weekend to play, and I didn’t have a job anymore. There was a guy up sitting up there singing in my shift. And [the manager] said, “See ya. You didn’t show up.” And I said, “I told you I was going to my dad’s wedding!”

And I sang at Gilley’s beer garden, where there’s that big building up the street now. I made $7 an hour, and there was no action. Nobody tipped. Now, Demonbreun is the popular bar scene. It’s the trendy, hip place to go, where people in the industry go.

I was reading an old newspaper article that said you met your husband Ted back then, and he was also playing for tips on the same street. What are your most vivid memories of that time?

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, I thought, “Oh my God, who is that!” I fell madly head-over-heels nutso in love with that guy. To this day, I don’t know that I’ve ever, ever been as in love with somebody as I was with him. It was my first love. It’s never like that again. You never get that rush, that puppy love thing. I had to chase him. He had been in some serious relationships. He was about three years older than me, and he was trying to keep me at arm’s length and not get too serious. And his dad was pushing us together big time. He was all about it. He was like, “She’s a country singer, you’re a fiddle player. Hey, you guys wanna go on a trolley ride?” (laughs) I’m not kidding you. He was pushing us on the trolley, making us sit in the same seat.

They had a family band, and they played at the George Jones Car Collectors Hall of Fame on Demonbreun. When I played at Gilley’s, I’d walk over there on my break and listen to them play. Sometimes I’d get up and sit in. Sometimes he’d come down there and sit in on the fiddle with me. I was always praying and hoping that some executive at RCA was going to hear me over the speakers and come and sign me, and it was going to be that easy. But it wasn’t that easy. It took many years after that.

I didn’t have anybody here. I was all alone, 2,000 miles from my mom. I was raised in the prairie of Alberta. I mean, come on — a different world. His family took me under their wing. They’re a very nice family. They still are. They lived out on a farm in Franklin, Ky. Ted would come get me in his $200 pickup truck. We’d go out there, and they’d have me over for dinner, and I’d stay the weekend. Then I’d come back to Nashville and go take the city bus to Tootsie’s [a club in downtown Nashville] and do my gig during the week.

We dated for a while, then we got married. When we got married, I was able to work then. I’m Canadian. So before that, I had to work for cash and tips, and I was dying to get a job that had some security to it, where I could make more money. So I started waiting tables at Applebee’s at Harding Place. I waited tables there for three years, and during that time, somebody from Hooters — which was about three restaurants down — came over and offered me a job. (laughs) Ted said, “Over my dead body, you’re getting a job at Hooters!”

Then things in the marriage started to poke their ugly heads, things that were wrong between us. That started to happen about three years before I got my record deal. We talked through a lot of things, and I thought, “It’ll be fine.” I brushed things under the carpet. I’m the great pretender. I’ll pretend nothing’s wrong just because I don’t want to face conflict. I’m really bad about that. I’m still working on that. So when I got my record deal, things just started to glare. I got out on the road, and I got around a bunch of new people and started to have fun. You know, my success and my quick rise to whatever it was at the time definitely contributed to the fact that our marriage ended so quickly. There were flaws in the relationship, and that was the end of it all. It was the worst thing I’ve gone through, ever. It was awful because I was like, “La la la la, I can’t hear you.”

So over the few years following that, I poured myself into my career, I never even faced it. I just kept working. “La la la la.” Subsequently, you pour yourself into one area, you neglect the other and wake up one day and go, “Whoa, that’s a lot of stuff.” Looking at a Greatest Hits record, I’m looking back on all the things that have happened between now and then, places you go in your life and places you come back around to in your life. It’s like, wow, a lot of stuff.

What about the struggles you had to get discovered back then?

I remember Ted and I would go audition for a label, and they’d be all about it, and then we’d get a phone call two weeks later, and they’d say they changed their mind. It’s not what they’re looking for. I would cry myself to sleep. It was such a push-pull, false hope thing for me for eight years. Every time a door slammed, there was another carrot dangling there. There was somebody else interested, so I could never give up. But there was a time I was thinking, “If I don’t have a deal by the time I’m 28, I’m going to be a dental hygienist.” (laughs) Because we were broke. We had no money. When we dated, we were broke. We were broke the whole time we were together. I was living in a house with a bunch of girls in Crieve Hall [a Nashville neighborhood]. We were all renting this house together, and he lived on the other end of the town. He had to literally roll pennies up to pay for gas to put in his truck, to come across town to see me. So you can imagine, when we got divorced, that had to have been hard, too.

Sometimes, I think when you struggle together, you have that in common. You spend your whole time wondering how you’re going to pay your bills that you don’t look at your relationship. That was part of the problem.

Do you think you’ll ever get married again?

I think so. I think that I purposefully really consumed myself with music. Music has been my first love, my companion, my best friend, my whole life, since I was 10 years old. That hasn’t changed a lot since my divorce. There have been things in my past that I don’t want to get into, really, but that I think have caused me to be afraid to be vulnerable. I’m learning that I need to be vulnerable now. I don’t need to be afraid to open myself up. I do want more of a life. I want something else. Music is my life, but I know there’s more, too. Maybe some day I’ll try that again. You’ve just got to be patient. You can’t look for it. You can’t go out looking for it.

I’ve dated, but it’s been tough for me. It’s been a tough road for me. That’s part of the reason why I’ve never outwardly talked much about my personal life, because they [the relationships] never last very long. That’s something I’m working on. (laughs) But you get close to somebody and tell the public about it, and your fans get to know them, the next thing you know, it’s in Country Weekly. And the next thing you know, you’re broken up. And people are asking six months later, “How ya doin’?” If I ever get really, really serious — engaged, married, whatever — everybody will know about it. But until then, I’ll be mum.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.