Big Day in a Small Town
One of the rare concept albums that lives up to its conceit while each song still able to stand on its own, Big Day in a Small Town demonstrates as well that Brandy Clark’s debut album wasn’t a fluke. She really is this good.
Big Day in a Small Town is an exploration of both the virtues and limitations of small town life in southern America. While the title track would seem like the obvious album opener, Clark wisely chooses “Soap Opera” instead, which gives listeners an opportunity to preview the cast of characters that will be explored individually throughout the set, done through the eyes of the neighborhood hairdresser and local bartender.
Then it’s on to two contrasting explorations of female identity within the restrictions of small town social expectations. First, the “Girl Next Door” rebels against the archetype, which she dismisses as the “Marcia Brady” kind “standing in an apron, frying up your bacon.” It’s a caricature that demonstrates how small differences can be dramatized into bigger ones in a small town, which Clark quickly undercuts by singing her next song about that Brady type. She’s the “Homecoming Queen” who is held up as the Platonic ideal of young womanhood at seventeen, with little girls lined up in the street to watch her as she waves in the local parade. Revealingly, even when she was at her most celebrated, “She swore she wouldn’t get stuck in this town,” but “now she’s stuck cutting coupons two doors down from her Mom.”
The recurring theme throughout the album is that living in a small town has the virtue of close relationships, undercut by having fewer choices. It’s true if you’re in love, but “secretly wishing Grandma would croak” because you’re “Broke.” It’s true if love has left you behind, but there’s nowhere to hide from him, so you draw the boundary at the front porch (“You Can Come Over,” she sings, “but you can’t come in.”) It’s true if you’re a single mom with “Three Kids No Husband,” and your only respite are quick cigarettes during your breaks from waiting tables at work and doing dishes at home.
It’s the kind of town where if you have a kinda good guy, you only dream about “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’,” simply because you don’t want to risk losing him. And if you have a kinda bad guy, you wish he has a “Daughter” that looks just like the girls he’s cheatin’ on you with, hoping for a delayed gratification version of revenge because it’s the only shot you have at revenge at all.
As with 12 Stories, an excellent album ends with a track that manages to astonish in its quality despite closing out an already stellar collection of songs. This time, it’s “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” which functions as something of a triple requiem: for a father that has died, for the family destroyed by his absence, and for the small town that’s dying, too. The narrator “doesn’t like coming home,” but “can’t stand the thought of Mom in that big house alone.” Her brother will only talk about Dad “when he’s had a few.” The sawmill he worked with has shut down, and “guys you worked for thirty years with have all moved out of town.” Half the town is in foreclosure, she notes, despite the market bouncing back, according to the news media. So when she sings that “Since you’ve gone to heaven, the whole world’s gone to hell,” it’s believable because when you live and die in a small town, the world begins and ends at the borders of that town.
It’s a poignant, powerful, and haunting track, especially in its heartbreaking final verse, one that will resonate with anyone who has lost a parent that quietly kept the family together while everyone around them made the noise: “Wish I was more like you, and less like myself. And I wish that I could talk to you ’cause I could use your help.”
Big Day in Small Town is full of richly drawn characters that resonate with truth because Clark’s eye for the little details is so specific, and her understanding of the human experience is so universal. She’s more than just the best songwriter that mainstream country music can claim as its own. She’s one of its finest artists, too.
Recommended Tracks: “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” “Three Kids No Husband,” “Broke,” “Homecoming Queen”