Where to start with Terri Clark’s Classic?

You might begin in 2004, the year Terri joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, tapping into the rich traditions of country music’s most famous stage.

There’s always 1995, the year Terri launched her career with “Better Things to Do,” a contemporary twist on the no-nonsense approach of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and pretty much the entire Loretta Lynn catalog.

Or maybe you go all the way back to 1987, when Terri’s mother and her best friend packed the aspiring singer and her belongings into a Honda Civic and drove from Canada to Nashville, leaving her to play for tips at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a legendary Lower Broad honky-tonk.

The deeper you delve into Classic, the deeper you find its roots go.

The story really starts two generations back, with Clark’s maternal grandparents, who raised five kids while playing country music in Montreal nightclubs with names like The Kit Kat and The Western Stop.

“My grandmother was nicknamed The Canadian Kitty Wells; that’s what they called her around Montreal,” Terri says. “They couldn’t go to Nashville and take a bigger stab at it – with five kids that just wasn’t going to happen. So I made the pioneer trip to Tennessee.

The songs of Classic span four decades of timeless country music, starting with the tunes young Terri learned via impromptu living-room parties her grandparents often hosted – standards like “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” or “I’m Movin’ On” by ‘The Singing Ranger’ Hank Snow, the first Canadian member of the Grand Ole Opry. Terri’s grandfather would break out his fiddle, her grandmother would start singing; soon it seemed like the entire neighbourhood would join in.

And the music didn’t stop when the party was over.

“My mom would tell me stories about how she would hear my grandmother walking around the house, vacuuming and cleaning, singing Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells,” Terri says.

Years ago, a family friend gave Terri an LP that had her grandmother singing “This White Circle on My Finger,” one of the nearly three dozen Top 10 hits Wells released after “Honky Tonk Angels” blew the barroom doors wide open for women who yearned to sing country music.

That recording begins Classic. Then pedal-steel player Paul Franklin works some modulation magic, and Terri kicks her own version of “Honky Tonk Angels” into high gear.

From there, Classic conveys a history of country music viewed from a personal perspective. “I tried really hard to pick at least a song or two from every decade from the ‘50s to the ‘80s,” Terri says.

In doing so, she reveals the starting point for every part of the Terri Clark sound: the hardcore honky-tonk of Merle Haggard; the California country-rock of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris; tough-minded women like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline; Canadian stars from Hank Snow to Neil Young.

Classic bears the stamp of influences Tanya Tucker and Reba McEntire, who each join Terri for duet versions of their hits. Friends Jann Arden, Dierks Bentley and Dean Brody sing with her, as well.

Terri grew up singing most of these songs and playing many of them during her years at Tootsie’s, which shares an alley with the artists’ entrance to the Ryman Auditorium, one of the homes of the Grand Ole Opry. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the historic Nashville nightspot, originally known as Mom’s, was a regular hang for greats like Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Loretta Lynn’s husband used to drink there when Lynn played the Opry. Terri, of course, played Tootsie’s many years later, and only in the afternoons – her mother forbid the young singer from venturing there after dark.

“It was a war zone down there at that time, nothing but peep shows and pawn shops and adult theatres,” Terri recalls. “And there was Tootsie’s and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in the middle of it all.”

Like many of her heroes whom she covers on Classic – Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris among them – Terri eventually became a member of the Grand Ole Opry – the first and only Canadian female to date. That long-running, live radio show has an important place in the album.

“The Opry is a big part of this,” Terri says. “I wanted to be a member of the Opry because of this music. Every time we step on that stage, we’re playing tribute to everybody that came before us.”

Two of Terri’s Classic duet partners are fellow Opry stars. Dierks Bentley joins her for a remake of the George Jones and Tammy Wynette tale of pawnshop romance, “Golden Ring.” Reba McEntire harmonizes with her on “How Blue,” originally a hit from McEntire’s 1984 My Kind Of Country album, itself a collection of mostly covers.

“The guests on the album are people who have influenced me or people I’m a fan of, as artists,” says Terri, who was once a card-carrying member of the Reba McEntire Fan Club. Literally – she still has the card. Terri also still has a T-shirt her mother ordered from the fan club and gave her for Christmas one year.

“I took it into the studio the day Reba came into sing and said, ‘Look what I found,’” she says.

McEntire wasn’t the first guest to sign on for Classic, though. That honour went to Tanya Tucker, who reprised her 1972 smash “Delta Dawn.” “Delta Dawn,” Terri says, was the second song she ever learned on the guitar (the first being “The Long Black Veil,” a 1959 hit for Lefty Frizzell that quickly became a folk standard). “I remember picking up the guitar and learning the chords and getting blisters on my fingers. I didn’t have calluses yet, because I only knew three chords.”

Tucker’s hit gains an additional level of empathy for the haunted Dawn in this new version, and a graceful fiddle-and-accordion tag sounds like a tender farewell to Dawn as she departs for that mansion in the sky.

On that track, and throughout Classic, Terri makes great use of some of Nashville’s top session musicians. Several of them have recorded with her throughout her career, playing on hits like “Better Things to Do,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and “I Wanna Do It All.” This time, Terri let them loose in the studio.

“They had fun,” she says. “And they played with reckless abandon – it’s not all polished and perfect. It sounds like they had a great time. That’s what always spoke the loudest about the records I’ve loved: It’s not about perfection, it’s about feeling an energy.”

That energy runs all the way through Classic, the energy of a contemporary artist having a lively discussion with the music that made her who she is. The spirit of Kitty Wells and Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell and Patsy Cline comes through loud and clear in the songs of Classic. At the same time, it sounds like a Terri Clark record.

“These are the songs that led to ‘Better Things to Do’ and to everything else that followed in my career,” Terri says. “They shaped who I became as an artist, from the very beginning.”

Classic – November 13, 2012