During her solo debut at the Grand Ole Opry earlier this month, Nettles brought out Clark — who is opening many of Nettles’ tour dates this year — for a rousing rendition of the dramatic song. Just before taking the famous stage together, both singers visited with CMT.com about the collaboration.
Chatting from a makeup chair in her backstage dressing room, Nettles said she presented the song idea to co-writers Hillary Lindsey and Ashley Gorley but insisted they steer clear of the familiar “Does He Love You?” battle of the divas achieved years ago by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis.
“I wanted it to be a duet, but a different duet,” Nettles said. “I didn’t want it to be ‘Oh, you love him and I love him.’ And ‘He’s with you, and I wish he was with me.’ I didn’t want try to revamp the obviously iconic classic. Obviously, Reba’s already done that with Linda.”
The next step was finding a duet partner, which took far longer than expected. In fact, Nettles recorded the song alone, then included it as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of her album, That Girl.
“When I went into the studio, I wasn’t able to find anyone that I felt was a good match, that was available, that could make it happen,” she said. “So to be out on the road with Brandy, it felt organic. It just organically came up: ‘I’ve got this song, it’s a duet, it could be a good moment for us.’ … And then we started performing it, and it started going over really well. It was exciting to be able to finally see that in duet form made manifest.”
Asked why Clark’s delivery worked so well, Nettles replied, “My voice and her voice are very different, and I think she brings vulnerability, even within the quality of her voice. She’s got a sweetness to it that really makes that character that much more believable.”
In “His Hands,” one woman escapes a violent relationship, then sends a warning to her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. However, that’s not the first impression most listeners will get.
“I love the twist to it,” Nettles said. “When you hear the first chorus after the first verse I sing, you think, ‘Oh, she’s talking about an intimate encounter.’ A passionate love affair, a passionate moment. A sexual encounter. And then when you get the twist of ‘OK, this is actually about an abusive encounter.’ That’s a really powerful moment.
“And I love those kinds of songs, too, especially for a topic as heavy and important as domestic violence,” she continued. “I think to be able to communicate those themes and emotions in a way that is effective, I think that is super-important. I like that (the song) draws that out. That moment like, ‘Ohhh, shit, that’s what this is about? Whoo, that’s heavy!'”
Down the Opry hallway, Clark was in her own makeup chair, where she modestly confessed that she doesn’t really know how to sing harmony, and that she couldn’t learn the song as fast as she wanted to. Yet she had nothing but kind words to say about “His Hands.” Describing Nettles as a “world-class singer,” Clark praised the emotional power of her singing partner.
“I mean, there’s a lot of range in that song, chops-wise, but I feel it when she sings those lines,” Clark said. “Like the bridge, I really feel it when she says, ‘Girl, you better get out while you can.’ I feel like she’s really talking to me and that we’ve been abused by the same man.”
Recalling their first time singing the duet in concert, Clark recalled, “I was so nervous. I’m sure if I listened back to that first performance, I would be like, ‘What were you thinking?’ Jennifer is good at pulling a good performance out of someone else. I don’t know if she even knows she’s good at that, but I just feel like she made me rise to the occasion.”
Clark is one of Nashville’s most prominent country songwriters, with a catalog that includes The Band Perry‘s “Better Dig Two,” Miranda Lambert‘s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Kacey Musgraves‘ “Follow Your Arrow.” In 2013, she released her debut album, 12 Stories, to critical acclaim. A native of Washington state, she is also one of CMT’s Next Women of Country with her own music video for “Stripes.”
“I grew up playing in bands and doing fairs and festivals before I moved here,” Clark said. “And I played a lot in Nashville, but I was never on a tour. I would go out and do one-off things but never a full tour. So this is my first tour, and I’m lucky that it was because it has been a great experience.”
Asked if she needed time to acclimate to touring, she replied, “You know, there was a little getting used to it. On a different tour, I would probably feel differently, but Jennifer and her crew are so friendly and helpful that I liked it right away. I felt like I was pulled into the fold. I was lucky in that the venues were the kind of venues where my kind of music — me with just a guitar — would work.”
Nettles will resume her That Girl tour in July with Clark opening many of the shows. After years of playing arenas with Sugarland, Nettles said she appreciates the vibe of a theater tour, too.
“Oh, yeah, I like that intimacy a lot. I’ve been really enjoying that,” she said. “I love live performance anyway, and I love the exchange that happens between the stage and the audience. And I love the invitation of trying to draw them in — especially with this song, too, because it is such a storyline/storytelling song. You do have to listen. And it’s really cool to play these venues where the audience gets a real opportunity to listen in that way.”