Brandy Clark isn’t a household name, but she’s given Nashville some of its most memorable hits of the decade. The co-writer of smashes like Kacey Musgraves’ provocative “Follow Your Arrow,” Clark has a knack for big melodies and punchy yet heartfelt lyrics that have made her one of country’s driving forces. Her dirt-road poetry is firmly embedded in the genre’s roots, but her take on country’s outlaw spirit is decidedly modern.
On her second solo album, Big Day in a Small Town, Clark focuses her sharp eye on the American map’s tiniest dots, those areas too small for a Waffle House or a Walmart, where porches serve as gathering places and where gossip can spread like wildfire. Clark’s lyrics populate her Town with characters whose personalities spring in full from the smallest details–the fall from grace of “Homecoming Queen” emerges from imagery of clipped coupons and sequined dresses long outgrown, while “Soap Opera” describes a beauty parlor where one woman worked her way up from shampoo duty to “playing shrink to every head of hair.”
Clark’s amped-up take on twang may not be as massive as her arena-ready male compatriots’, but when she cranks things up, it’s a damn good time. A boisterous stomp anchors the devil-may-care optimism of “Broke,” while the feisty “Girl Next Door” takes aim at unrealistic expectations of femininity from the Virgin Mary to Barbie. Yet she also deftly operates within country’s more traditional structures. The vengeful “Daughter,” with backing vocals by Musgraves, has a giddy honky-tonk feel and a gimlet-eyed view of life’s circular nature: “She can’t help but love them boys who love to love and leave them girls/ Just like her father.” It’s this injection of grit and honesty into the genre’s most familiar tropes that makes her one of its biggest talents.
This appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of TIME.