Terri Clarke: Grand Lady of Canadian Country
By David DeRocco
Singer who plays guitar? Guitar player who sings? Or songwriter who sings and plays guitar? It’s hard to know how to prioritize the talent when you’re writing about a triple threat superstar like “northern girl” Terri Clark. So there’s only one way to do it: ask Terri!
“I’d have to say I’m a singer who plays guitar,” muses Clark, the three-time JUNO, eight-time CCMA Entertainer of the Year-winning country music star from Medicine Hat, Alberta. “You know, if I had to depend on my guitar playing to make a living without the singing, I’d be hard up for grocery money.”
Upon reflection, however, Clark recognizes a self-effacing view of her guitar playing doesn’t really ring true when you look at the role her six-string has played in establishing her place in country music history. After all, Clark is a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the only Canadian female artist to have earned that prestigious distinction, and she has her guitar to thank for that.
“I also think I wouldn’t be where I’m at without my guitar playing,” reconsiders Clark, who’s sold over four million albums and earned six #1 hits in Canada and the U.S. with songs like “Better Things To Do,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Girls Lie Too,” “Northern Girl,” and “I Just Wanna Be Mad.” “I got started playing for tips at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, I got discovered that way, I auditioned for my record deal with just a guitar, I write songs on my guitar. I don’t know that if I didn’t play the instrument that I would have had the kind of longevity or career or even had a shot in the first place. I don’t think people realize how integral it is until they come and see a solo show.”
Thousands of fans did just that in 2016, when Clark traversed Canada from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia on her successful “Back to My Roots Solo Acoustic Tour,” an intimate and interactive fan experience that saw the tireless road warrior perform 41 shows in 50 nights. By her own assessment the tour was her best ever, but Clark admits is was also one of her most challenging.
“I just put so much into the stories that I tell, it was very real. I had a lot of people tell me I should write a book after that tour. That’s the part I think was the hardest. It’s the emotional drain of being that vulnerable every single night. For two hours every night, to sit there by myself and basically bare my soul, and have to depend on myself as the musician and deliver the music. It was challenging in that it required a lot of focus and energy, emotional energy and physical energy. But I have got to tell you, if there’s any tour I’ve done across Canada that I’d want to be remember for it’s that one. I felt like it was just such a connection with the audience and an experience like I’ve never had before and may never have again.”
With the solo tour over, Clark is back on the road with her full band on a less demanding tour schedule that brings her into the Jackson Triggs Amphitheatre August 16th. As an artist that’s released 10 albums in 22 years, however, a slower touring pace is no indication that Clark is considering a reduction in her creative output.
“Well I am driven, but I also have to be creative and I have to continue to make new music the farther I go in my career. I know that radio is going to reach back into my catalogue and most likely play recurrent stuff at this point, but I’m still going to create new music for me. I’m a creative person. I can’t grow just by playing the same songs over and over again. In my show I’m always going to play those songs, but I want to create new ones too to feed my own soul. I’m always going to have a handful of people out there who are going to want some new stuff. It’s something I’ve always felt driven to keep doing, to keep myself fresh and to keep moving. It’s kind of like when people say ‘when you stop you die,’ something my grandmother who’s 92 this year says. So I’ll take her advice and I’ll just keep going.”
Luckily for Clark, she’s got the ever-present creative inspiration of Nashville, Tennessee to keep her motivated. And according to the five-time Female Vocalist of the Year winner, the city truly is magical when it comes to providing artists with opportunity to feed the creative fires.
“There’s an energy that hangs over the city that creeps into every single writer’s room,” Clark suggests. “When you look at all the talent that comes here and how many songs are being written every day that kind of go up into the universe and hang over the city like a ray of sunshine, that’s a kind of creative energy I feel like there’s no other place like Nashville. I went to a party five miles from my house the other night, just people getting together to hang out. I’m in somebody’s barn and there’s John Pardi and Kid Rock. I’m just standing there going, ‘oh man, only in Nashville.’ I wouldn’t have got that staying in Medicine Hat.”
At this point in her career, Clark has become one of the artists other artists come to Nashville to be inspired by. Having that influence on a new generation of country music stars is humbling says Clark.
“I’m meeting all these never artists who are having hits and trying to break. I’m meeting them for the first time, and they’re like ‘mam, it’s an honour.’ Oh lord, it’s so flattering and so nice. Guys like Cole Swindell and that ilk having hits now and saying ‘the 90s were my influential years.’ The (Merle) Haggards and the (George) Jones weren’t the influences of the new generation of country stars. It was people like Tracy Lawrence and Alan Jackson and George Strait and Mark Chesnutt and Joe Diffie. My being a small part of that era is something special, part of the fascination of being in Nashville.”
Regardless of where her travels take her, Clark will forever be part of Nashville thanks to her induction into the Grand Ole Opry in 2004 – the same year she turned down an offer to pose for Playboy. Despite that offer and her killer good looks, Clark – a typically humble Canadian and eternally positive role model for young female country artists – is much happier to have had her talents exposed by the Opry than by the magazine.
“I’m tremendously honoured to be a member, to be the only female Canadian is amazing. The Opry is the Holy Grail of country music, it’s what everybody wants to achieve and stand on that stage. It’s just such an honour, I still get nervous every time. But the older I get the more I appreciate everything. I’m actually stopping now to smell the roses and go, oh my, I’m a member of the Opry. I’m relishing the moments more.”