Terri Clark: A Decade-Long Audition (Part 2 of 2)

Native Canadian Is Grateful for the Experience and Wisdom Her Career Has Provided

In the second part of an exclusive two-part interview with CMT.com, Terri Clark remembers making a demo with Vince Gill, finally getting her big break and arriving in the same year that country’s top women were stepping into the spotlight.

CMT: I understand that you had a demo that helped you finally get a deal, right?

Clark: I did what they call a spec deal with MCA Music Publishing with Bryan Kennedy, who was Jerry’s son. [Jerry] incidentally produced Reba’s early stuff. I didn’t even know what a producer did when I moved to Nashville. I didn’t know the difference between a publisher and a producer. I had to ask the people at Tootsie’s [a downtown Nashville club], and they had to explain it to me.

So Bryan heard a demo tape of a song I had written, and he went to MCA Music Publishing and said, “I’ve got this girl I want to produce some songs on.” They gave us a $10,000 budget. They said, “Go do five things, and we’ll see if we can shop her a deal.” We did five things and they were really country. Like, I’m really country now, but you should have heard me then. It was like George Jones country.

It was almost a master [recording]. It was really good. Vince Gill came and sang on it, and Carl Jackson played on it. I was like, “Aaaagh! Vince Gill is here!” It was when “When I Call Your Name” was huge. It was a very big deal. I just sat there and didn’t say anything. I just about died. I couldn’t believe it.

What was the response around town?

Everywhere they took it, it was like, “She’s too country. She’s too country, we have our quota of females, we don’t need anymore females.” Sometimes I felt like a bottle of ketchup that they had too many of so they couldn’t put another one on the shelf. That was in 1991. Nothing came of it.

And that thing floated around town. I went and got a job, selling boots at Boot Country in Hendersonville [a Nashville suburb], and that’s where I got into wearing my hat a lot more, like I used to in high school. I worked there for about three years. Then one day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Woody Bowles who was kind of working with me, sort of a little bit at the time. He knew of me, and he was trying to help me, but he wasn’t getting much of anywhere either. The most common thing I heard was probably, “She’s probably the most powerful country singer I’ve heard, but not what we’re looking for.” OK. Yeah, OK, whatever. But you never know when people are blowing smoke or what. I went and auditioned with my guitar for a couple people, too, but nothing came of it.

How did you wind up at Mercury?

Somehow [record producer] Keith Stegall ended up with this demo three years after I made it, and he flipped out over it. He’s a traditionalist, and all he had right then was Alan Jackson. He wasn’t working at a label. He was just independently producing and doing some developmental deals for artists on other labels. He called me, and I brought my guitar into the studio, and I sat and sang for him. And he said, “You know, when I hear somebody like you, I wish I didn’t have all these independent things going on, so I could really help you.” He said, “I’m really tied up for about six months, but I’d really like to do something with you and help you get a deal.”

Keith ended up going to Mercury Records [as an A&R executive], and that’s eventually how I got signed. Keith called Woody and said, “I want to bring her in to sing for [label chief] Luke Lewis.” And I thought, “Oh my gosh, here’s somebody who could really help me.” I’d already been in town for eight years, and I had so many doors open and shut on me at that point, I was almost getting bitter, and I didn’t even have a deal yet. So I hauled my guitar down there, put on my loudest Garth Brooks “Mo” Betta shirt, busting out of the buttons. I was starting to gain weight because I was miserable about things not happening. I didn’t know what was going on. I was stress eating. I was drinking too much beer and eating too much ribeye.

How did the audition go?

I went in there and sat down and sang for them. I had just gotten off a cold, so I felt like I didn’t do well. I’ll never forget. They stood up and said, “We’ll be talking soon.” Luke was smiling, and I thought, “I think that went well.” I didn’t have my hat on for that first audition, either. And I got the call the next day that they wanted to sign me. Like a real record deal, a whole album! (laughs) I called my mother, and we were screaming.

But I had been given so much false hope in the past that I was still afraid to believe it until the contract was actually signed. It took nine months to negotiate the contract. I kept calling my attorney and saying, “OK, this is still being negotiated, right?” I was so afraid of doing something wrong and them backing out. Oh, I was so paranoid about it, but it happened.

I’ve been on that label ever since, and there are so many artists who can’t say they’ve been on the same label. There have been a lot of changes at my label. It’s not really the same label, but I have not had to go anywhere. That’s because Luke Lewis has been such a believer. He’s the guy that signed me, and he’s still there. That’s rare these days. He always says we’re going to grow old together. (laughs)

1995 was a big year for women in country music. Alison Krauss swept the CMAs. Patty Loveless won her CMA award for album of the year. Pam Tillis produced her own album. Shania Twain released The Woman in Me. And you put your first record out too. Do you remember the hubbub about women in country music back then?

Yeah, and it felt really good to be one of them. No matter what happens in my career, there will never be the thing where people say, “There’s this girl in a hat … .” For the most part, country listeners know who I am, and that was the big introduction year. Boy, I had a good time. (laughs) I had waited and worked for it so long and had so many doors slammed shut. When it all finally happened, it was like the dog that chases the car and then catches it. Now what the hell do they do with it? It was like, “Oh my God. Oh my God.” It was like anti-climactic, like now that I’ve got it, now I’ve gotta hang onto it. It’s been a constant struggle to hang onto it since then.

I never realized the places that music would take me, and the people I would meet. Everyone from people in New York City steakhouses, to beaches and hotels and restaurants and bars all over the world that will say stuff like [talks very fast], “I love your song ’Better Things to Do.’ You know where I was the first time I heard that? I was graduating from high school, and I was in the back seat of a car … .” And with “Now That I Found You,” this kid told me it was the last dance his parents had before his dad died of cancer. This road map of stories and these songs, it’s like connect-the-dots. It creates this beautiful picture over the years that I can look back on and see now.

Experience and wisdom are some things I would not trade for anything. Being the hot new thing in 1995 and people looking at me saying, “Oh there’s this girl in this hat … ,” I would not want to go back to that place again. If I knew then what I know now, you can’t buy that. You learn how to handle yourself. You learn how to take the ups with the downs. You learn about the business. You learn how to be a boss. You learn how to be a friend. There’s just a lot outside of the creative aspect of it. There’s a big learning curve. There are no mistakes in life. Everything is about a learning process. That’s what I think. I’ve learned a lot.

Do you still feel like you’re auditioning sometimes?

I’m constantly auditioning. Sometimes I compare it to high school. (laughs) Or being a sports team where you’re only as good as your last game. You gotta keep working on it. I’m always striving for the music to be better. I want to have better content, or I want to be a better artist. I want to grow as an artist every time. Not essentially change who I am musically or what I think I do the best. I just want to be the best “me” I can be for now. If you’re not growing, then what’s the point? That’s the constant challenge. Keep your eye on the music, and the rest will connect.

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