Brandy Clark, Courtney Marie Andrews, Danny Barnes and Brandi Carlile — four artists with ties to rural Washington — are all nominated for Grammy Awards this year. Here they discuss their Grammy-nominated projects. (These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.)
Brandy Clark on the soul-searching period leading up to “Your Life is a Record”:
“I went through a lot of change, both professionally and personally. Personally, I went through a breakup of a long relationship. And then I also went through a breakup with what my idea of country music is, because with [2016 album] ‘Big Day [in a Small Town],’ we had made a push at country radio and it didn’t get the traction that I would have liked. The label — I’m really lucky I’m signed to Warner in L.A. — they were like, ‘Quit feeling like your music needs to fit a certain box and just make a record that you really want to make.’ So, it was a breakup with that, too, with my idea [of] what my music needed to be and where it needed to fit. So in the end it was a breakup record [laughs] and probably more about my breakup with commercial country and not feeling like, ‘Oh my god, please love me!’ than a personal breakup. It was just really like, ‘OK, well, you’re not gonna play me on your radio stations, but I’m gonna still make music, so I’m going to forge ahead.
“I think in the past I would have worried — ‘Oh, are there enough up-tempo songs?’ But I didn’t with this. And I maybe would not have been as open to the idea of putting strings and horns on it. Everything gets where it’s supposed to get when it’s supposed to get there, and I think I had to make ‘Big Day,’ which I’m equally proud of, to get to this one.”
Courtney Marie Andrews on her inspiration and writing process behind “Old Flowers”:
“2019, right after the new year, was a year of change for me. I moved to Nashville, had gone through a breakup. I was with this person for nearly a decade, so obviously that comes with its own set of obstacles and learning curves. I really couldn’t think of anything else, as far as ‘Old Flowers’ goes, but my emotions and the changing of the tides in my life. [Andrews’ 2018 album] ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ was such a world record, in terms of, I was observing the world and writing from other people’s perspectives, and I couldn’t even do that if I tried with ‘Old Flowers.’ I needed it personally to understand how I was feeling about all the change. I like to say that 2019 was like my ‘soul journey’ year — my ‘Eat Pray Love’ moment. [Laughs.] You know, discovering how to be Courtney alone in the world. ‘Old Flowers’ was my ode to those feelings.
“When I moved into my first apartment in Nashville, my friend worked at some estate sales and he found this piano that was discounted — half-price, the last day of the estate sale. I moved this old Wurlitzer into my house, just him and I — which is insane to do, don’t ever try that. Just hire movers. [Laughs.] I was determined, like, ‘I’m kinda broke at this time, let’s just get this [expletive] in!’ And that’s what we did. So, I wrote most of the songs in that little apartment I rented, on the piano and on this nylon guitar.
“With ‘May Your Kindness Remain,’ I went in with such a method to the madness. I want[ed] to write about things that were happening in the world and I really sat down and wrote a song. It was very thought-about. Whereas with ‘Old Flowers,’ it was like 2 a.m., stereotypical drunk singer on a piano bench, need to get this out. All the songs are written in under 10 minutes.”
Danny Barnes on writing about working-class struggles, his more collaborative “Man on Fire” and getting his Grammy flowers:
“That whole thing of trying to get a job, trying to survive when you’re not from rich people, that’s in all my stuff. I’m constantly exploring that. I’m constantly making notes of things, meeting people on a bus and overhearing things people say, in the hardware store, when I go out to eat. My records are kinda like movies and the songs are like scenes.
“There’s recurring characters, thematics and this sort of story arc. So you gotta have a lot of fodder. I’ve been in the same neighborhood for 20, 25 years, and you know your neighbors and you see the things people go through, the babies that get born, and the people that die, and the dogs that get run over. You get a lot of real life from all that.
“I do a lot of stuff by myself just because I have a lot of ideas and I constantly make things. I have a small avant-garde label I do out of my house, so I’m completely unfettered. But every now and then it’s kinda cool to stop putting stuff out for a minute, and gather up a bunch of stuff and put a thing out on a [bigger] label. Go to like a real studio instead of just working at my house and get some heavier-cat buddies of mine to help me turn it into something.
“Jon Salter, the dude at ATO [Records], has always been real cool to me. He was real excited about the Grammy thing. He called me, sent me an email and they sent a bunch of flowers. That felt good, because a lot of times when record companies get ahold of you they’re either telling you to quit doing something or they’re dropping ya or you owe ’em $75,000. [Laughs.]”
Brandi Carlile on The Highwomen and the dearth of women on country radio, taken from a 2019 interview:
“I have a Ford F-350 diesel pickup truck that I drive for farm stuff, only farm stuff — I get hay in it, haul my boat or go to the dump, because I don’t have garbage pickup out where I’m at. Everywhere I go is an hour, it takes me an hour to get everywhere in that truck, because that’s just where I live. So only when I’m in that truck I will listen to country radio, just to see what’s going on, because when I was young that was the only music I had access to was country radio, and thank God I had Tanya Tucker, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, The Judds, Reba McEntire — I could go on and on and on. I had a pile of female artists to choose from telling my/their story.
“So I listen to country radio from time to time, because I know that’s the message going out to rural America. And everywhere I go in that truck, I’m there for an hour, and I have not heard a woman in that hour in three years.
“The problem is that country music is the story of rural America being told through music. And right now, only one half of the human race’s story is being told. The songs that I needed for my identity are not being sung on country radio anymore and that’s a problem for young women being represented and mirrored in the arts.”