Four years after her final Mercury Nashville album, Life Goes On, a wiser, bloodied, but unbowed Terri Clark emerges on the The Long Way Home. This self-produced, self-released album is on her own Bare Tracks imprint, distributed by Capitol. Clark wrote or co-wrote every track on The Long Way Home, a rockin' contemporary country record that sets its own standard for excellence, in her songwriting, in her production, and of course in her absolutely electric and soul-baring performance. It's a contemporary country record, but one that sets its own standard with a natural sound with some unique twists and turns that enhance the songs, not the sonic palette.
The real strength of any album is in its songs. And this one has them in spades. "Gypsy Boots" is a sexy, stomping country blues-rock anthem that begins with a fiddle and acoustic guitar. Clark sings: "I was born in Gypsy boots with a guitar on my back/With a rebel soul and an attitude/Just like Johnny Cash/This is just another town and I'm only passing through..." the verse could serve metaphorically for Nashville, and her telling them where to stick it. Verse two is pure, heated, sexual bravado, and the last underscores her bragging rights as a country artist: she's lived the genre's songs. The single "If You Want Fire" reveals this life experience. Its honesty and acknowledgment of her life's triumphs and mistakes are laid out plainly with an admonition: "It's every kind of crazy I could ever imagine/A battle ragin' between my head and my heart/But if you gotta have it all, that madness and passion/ Then you'll learn/If you want fire/It better be worth the burn..." The arrangements that underscore Clark's vocals are stellar; slide guitar melds seamlessly with ringing, plucked electrics as a snare accents the ends of lines. The lovely mandolins and acoustic guitars in the confessional ballad "A Million Ways to Run" are beautiful, underscoring that this is no cheap admission, but the truth's burden pressing hard upon the human heart, insisting that it be revealed. The raw soul in this tune is worth the price of the album. Joe Strummer once said "You don't face your demons down,/You wrestle them to the ground." "What Happens in Vegas (Follows You Home)," written with Maia Sharp, is searing in its honesty, but so hook-laden its melodic appeal is undeniable. Vince Gill backs Clark on the gorgeous, heartbreaking rejection of co-dependency in "The One You Love." The country-blues return on the funky "Poor Girl's Dream," driven by banjos and big guitars. The 12-bar tradition is important here, because Clark shows her roots in blues and hard-edged honky tonk while writing modern refrains and bridges. There is nurture here too, as evidenced by the beautiful "Tough with Me," a paean to a partner who insists on fronting off the world. "You Tell Me," a duet with Johnny Redd, is fueled by hand percussion and acoustic guitars underscoring an intimate conversation as lovers try to figure out where and how love goes on when it's stretched to the margins.
The Long Way Home proves Clark is indeed "Fearless." Every song meets contemporary country's criteria but contains lyrical content, and musical and production sophistication, that demand attention. Ultimately, this is the finest recording of her career to date, and is a model for what contemporary country music could be if it were more artist driven.