Fearless is the most accurately titled album in Terri Clark's catalog. It's an attempt at breaking out of the bonds of contemporary country without leaving the music entirely behind. She's since distanced herself from it because Nash Vegas -- in its typical, screwed-up intolerant way -- disowned it as not format friendly. Her label, thanks to visionary Luke Lewis and Keith Stegall, encouraged her to make the record she wanted to make, and promoted the hell out of it. But country radio balked. Nashville critics, and the country music press in general, didn't know what to make of it and consequently it was a commercial failure. The bottom line is her songwriting collaborations with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Angelo, and Gary Burr are all dead-on. Her own songs, a killer cover of Carlene Carter and Susanna Clark's "Easy from Now On," one from Tammy Rodgers, another from Jann Arden, as well as a Carpenter and Kim Richey collaboration prove one thing: This woman knew how to pick songs that fit around a theme, taking chances and moving toward destiny. The opener, "No Fear," penned with Carpenter and featuring Steuart Smith's trademark electric guitar slashing, is sung with resolve yet without hysteria or false bravado. And along with a statement of purpose like this in life comes one in love as well. "Empty," written with Burr, is the most poetic and naked she's ever written. In the refrain, her voice begins to crack as she sings: "I want to call out for love 'til I can't breathe/I want to stare at the truth until I can't see/I want to pour out my soul 'til I'm empty. Empty, until only the flesh and bones remain...."
On another of their co-writes, "Getting There," Benmont Tench drives the track as Stuart Duncan's fiddle paints the backdrop and Smith's guitars crunch the entire middle into a solid country-rocker. With its mandolin, banjos, and gentle drum loop, "Sometimes Goodbye" is one of the freshest sounding tracks to come out of Music City in 20 years. Listening to it years later, it's so obvious that Clark is not only a bright talent, but an original one. Never has a statement of broken love and a personal decision to end it sounded so affirmative. Covering "Easy from Now On" after Emmylou Harris' definitive version took guts, but in keeping with the previous track it made sense. And it's an absolutely chilling version with Harris providing the backing vocal. Like the aforementioned, it's a strong statement of determination, of affirmation, and of feminist principle in defining oneself in one's own terms. Certainly one can read plenty of autobiographical interpretations into songs like this and examine Clark's personal life, but it's irrelevant to the work of art in the disc player as it affects the listener. "The Real Thing" is a kicking bit of country-rock with a riff that comes out of Prince's "When You Were Mine." The album closes quietly with Jann Arden's "Good Mother," dedicated to the woman who raised her, and a hymn to personal transformation from the ruin and waste of past mistakes to a future uncertain but supported by the maternal connection to unconditional love. It whispers to a close with acoustic guitars and Jonathan Yudkin's cello, and in the silence, the listener feels empowered, emboldened, and just a bit wiser. Screw Nashville; this record will be regarded as a classic one day. One can only hope that Clark will reconsider one day that what she made here wasn't a mistake, but a real work of popular art. If Shania Twain displayed on her records an ounce of the integrity delivered here in full, she'd be a recording artist instead of a pop star.