Charlie Worsham and Brandy Clark are a match made in heaven. The brawn of their pens harken to the extraordinary blend of Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller and John Prine. They are uncomfortably honest: wallowing in brutal truths of small town living, addiction, pain and loss. With four studio records between them, they’ve grown a solid catalog of stories–from Worsham’s pointed “Young to See” (from his 2013 studio debut Rubberband) and his brand new naked song “Birthday Suit” (off Beginning of Things) to Clark’s barbed revenge tale “Stripes” (one of her most excellent 12 Stories) and her blue-collar, single-parent tribute “Three Kids No Husband” (a chapter of Big Day in a Small Town). Playing to a packed house at New York’s City Winery on Thursday evening (April 20), the dynamic and delightful duo primed the crowd with some whiskey-rich country tunes.
And we’re not talking about what you hear on the radio–although, it is utterly tragic neither have seen much success on that terrestrial medium–but the scruffy, weathered and dirt-under-your-fingernails kind. Worsham was first up to bat, launching his 45-minute set with the pleading “Please People Please,” the second cut from his just-released sophomore effort Beginning of Things. His spirited word-play is never overwrought or half-baked; he flavors his songwriting with an exact amount of bite, charm and cunning. “I’ve worn suits that didn’t suit me. Shook hands I wouldn’t shake. Turned screws that only screwed me. Took pills I wouldn’t take. It’s a hard one to swallow but I’m done trying to follow the path,” he unwrapped, unwittingly declaring his own resolve after a lackluster radio bow. “From now on, I’ll be choosing based on what I feel. You can’t win for losing.”
He soaks each lyric with a thundering growl these days, especially when he returned later during Clark’s set for a heady cover of Vince Gill’s 1992 hit “One More Last Chance” (from Gill’s I Still Believe in You LP). Worsham’s solo set then continued with the pluck and gusto of “Young to See,” tapping into youth obsession and the glaring naivety that comes with being a 20-something. “I won’t forget the day I found my first place on the edge of town…A few milk crates, a beat-up couch and an old TV. A little rundown, a little bit small but to me it was the Taj Mahal,” he painted on the first line–and any songwriter who can include “Taj Mahal” in a lyric (and for it to make sense) is a marksman at his craft. “It’s just one of those things you gotta be young to see,” he assessed on the hook. Skin-deep, the story might come across as misguided, but in broader terms, there’s a beauty in oblivion and living “wild and free,” as he can attest. There is also the nostalgic gloss; as time flickers faster and faster, there are defining eras of your life, ones which either changed your life forever or were marked with that carefree and unhurried essence, which you can’t shake.
Worsham stacked his setlist with remarkable insight. He then took a moment to lament the struggle of heartache and recovery with “Call You Up,” which features a bluesy, rousing horn section on record. He matched the level of introspective, brooding moments with a disorderly but absorbing sequence: his plucky ditty to his “Pants,” followed by the empowering “Cut Your Groove,” “Tools of the Trade,” his booze-blistered “Take Me Drunk” and his self-proclaimed naked, celebratory “Birthday Suit.” “What do the liner notes say? I can’t believe this,” he quipped when attempting to recall the lyrics to the last song. But when it came to the finest display of his lyrical whipping, that distinction is bestowed upon the goofy, club-wasted “Take Me Drunk”–in which he wails “what’s a drink gotta do to get a guy in this bar, I mean girl in this bar.” He doesn’t leave you hanging with just that, though. He continued to satisfy the crowd’s thirst for the payoff. “Somebody here take the car to my keys, can’t drive with these…two hands on…take me drunk, I’m home.”
For all the breezy cheekiness, he balanced with warm, heartfelt emotion. He book ended with “Old Time’s Sake” and “Mississippi in July” and reminded the audience of country music’s luscious, musically-layered ethos. From the yearning of the former to the smolder of the latter, the 31-year-old thrives as one of today’s most valuable assets. He might not have a mountain of radio staples like such contemporaries as Brett Eldredge, but his impact and grooves are equally (if not more so) as essential to the format.
Without saying a word, Clark kicked off her set with the 1-2-3 emotional punch of “Hold My Hand,” “Love Can Go to Hell” and “Just Like Him,” as a way to get some of the raw heft out of the way early–and “to keep expectations low,” she joked, in her dry, sensible way. “I can only go up from here.” If you didn’t know any better, cuts from her first and second record could lie together as a stalwart double-decker album. “The Day She Got Divorced,” “Get High” and “Take a Little Pill” stuck together like industrial-strength glue to her sophomore album’s best moments, “Girl Next Door,” “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin’,” “Three Kids No Husband” and “Daughter,” her reinvention of the classic man-done-me-wrong template. Instead of settling for slashing the cheater’s tires or setting his house on fire, she promises karma’s a bitch. “I hope you have a daughter, and I hope that she’s a fox. Daddy’s little girl, just as sweet as she is hot. She can’t help but love them boys, who love to love and leave them girls just like her father,” she smirked.
Through the entirety of her performance, Clark made her vocals extra strong, potent like an early-morning black cup of coffee. With the added benefit of such standouts as “Hungover,” “Broke,” “You Can Come Over” and “Stripes,” Clark zagged through her songbook at the speed of light, also peppering in numerous covers or co-writes. She then enveloped the crowd in “Unlove You,” which former Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles recorded for her second solo album, 2016’s Playing with Fire. There was a moment when you thought “nah, Jennifer couldn’t possibly be in New York City, too, right?” But when the music subsided after the ring of chorus No. 1, lo and behold, the twang-voiced powerhouse sauntered out onto the stage to join Clark for a soaring performance. Nettles is criminally underrated among her fellow belters like Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride; the torrential force of her voice can scale mountain peaks and skyscrapers with ease, before plummeting to the darkest of depths.
Of course, Clark couldn’t finish out the night without pay homage to those legends who’ve clearly informed her own vocal phrasing and style. With Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man),” she displayed her knack for earthy honky-tonk storytelling. Meanwhile, her cover of Linda Ronstadt’s defining “Blue Bayou” allowed her to explore the rollicking country-rock influences of ’70s-era California. Sheepishly, Clark claimed she could not possibly live up to the caramel-smooth delivery of Ronstadt, who defined an entire era of music-makers, reflecting on a time as a kid when her own mother exposed her to a swath of torchbearers. “If you can sing like Linda, you are a singer, with a capital S,” she reminisced. Sure, Clark does not possess as a monumental voice as Ronstadt did in her prime, but she is undeniably as expressive, needling her way between southern gothic revenge tales to those of unshakeable heartache and wit. Clark is just getting started.