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Washington timber town Morton shaped singer-songwriter Brandy Clark

Grammy winner says it 'was a sad day for me' when she left for Nashville

By Michael Rietmulder, The Seattle Times
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:03am

MORTON— Heading out of Morton where the town’s main street turns into Highway 508, there’s a small bridge over the Tilton River. A sign prohibiting bridge jumpers at the popular summer swimming hole presides over the open spot in the bucolic river, though it hasn’t done much to deter the quiet logging town’s teenagers from taking the 12-foot plunge.

Brandy Clark grew up three miles down 508, a stretch of two-lane highway with peek-a-boo views of the Tilton, which ran directly behind her childhood home, and the occasional wooded lot peppered with broken-down vehicles that don’t look like they’re getting fixed anytime soon.

“I always wanted to have the guts to do it, but I never did,” the country/Americana star says. “I remember friends of mine jumping off that bridge — it’s not a tall bridge when I look at it, but it seemed like the Golden Gate Bridge as a kid.”

She may never have jumped off that bridge into the cool mountain river, but Clark took a much bigger leap when she moved to Nashville, Tenn., at 21 years old, chasing a country music dream. She’d left her hometown in the Cascade foothills between Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens once before on a basketball scholarship to Central Washington University. It didn’t stick. She quickly grew homesick and returned to Morton, the industrious timber town where she developed the drive and grit to ultimately make it in the music biz.

“I didn’t want to leave Morton,” Clark says of her departure to Nashville, where she now splits her time between there and Malibu, Calif. “That was a sad day for me.”

It worked out pretty well, though.

Since moving to the country music capital more than 25 years ago, Clark has established herself as a force on Music Row, penning hits for stars like Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow”) with frequent collaborator Shane McAnally while steadily building her career as a decorated solo artist walking the ridge that divides Americana and country’s mainstream.

A perennial Grammy contender whenever she releases an album, Clark finally triumphed Feb. 4 when she took home a trophy for the Americana Performance Grammy. Her six nominations, mostly stemming from last year’s unvarnished self-titled album (produced by Brandi Carlile), had tied with pop stars Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and others, placing Clark among some of this year’s most nominated artists. (SZA led the field with nine.)

It may have taken a cross-country move to set those dreams in motion. But Clark’s upbringing in the mossy heart of Washington timber country — in a hardworking town of a thousand people, bound by a century-old logging heritage — laid the foundation.

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“Everything about who I am is from the Northwest,” Clark said last year shortly before her record was released. “My ideas of small-town America go back to Morton, Washington. … A lot of times in my writing, people will guess that I’m from the South and I’m like ‘No, I’m from the Northwest.’ The South isn’t the only place in the country that has small towns and blue-collar people.”

We’ll forgive the assumption. With so much country music originating from places like Texas and Tennessee, anything with a whiff of twang or reflecting rural ways of life is often associated with south of the Mason-Dixon Line — not the state that gave the world grunge and Microsoft.

Back in 2017, Clark was honored as the parade grand marshal during Morton’s annual Loggers’ Jubilee. Billed as the “granddaddy of all logging shows,” the chainsaw-whizzing event has been an eastern Lewis County tradition for 80 years and that August weekend sees Morton’s population triple.

“It celebrates who we are as a community,” says Chad Cramer, a second-generation logger and Clark’s childhood friend.

That year Clark played a concert in the Jubilee arena, a grassy ring next to the high school flanked by cement bleachers with timeworn cedar benches. Clark brought her Nashville buddy Jessie Jo Dillon, a certified Southerner and songwriter of the year nominee who co-wrote half the songs on Clark’s new album. The Tennessee native didn’t feel that far from home.

“Most people when they think of Washington state they think of Seattle and Pike Place Market and Starbucks,” Clark says. “She couldn’t believe how rural of a place Morton was.

“This is a terrible thing to admit,” Clark continues, “but when I’m in Nashville and the guys will brag about the deer they get (hunting), I’ll think, ‘That’s like a Bambi.’ (Laughs). The guys I grew up with, I mean, they’re going out and getting elk and not gettin’ ’em with feeding them corn in their front yard.”

Reflecting her roots

For all the small-town similarities between life in Morton and the rural South, there are distinctions besides the hunting trophies rarely reflected in popular country songs.

“The lifestyle itself is similar, but you know, there’s not a lot of red clay around Morton,” says Cramer, referring to a soil type synonymous with parts of the South. “There’s not a lot of songs out there that talk about the timber industry, in any genre, which is definitely what raised all of us.”

At least not until Clark’s latest album.

While it’s the songs “Buried” and “Dear Insecurity,” a stirring duet with Carlile, that helped her reel in her first Grammy win in 17 career nominations, anyone who’s ever had their breath taken away by a foggy mountain valley will recognize the songs “Northwest” and “She Smoked in the House” as the album’s emotional centerpiece. Both are deeply entwined with her Morton roots.

Written with Dillon during a Washington retreat, “Northwest” is Clark’s personal ode to the PNW, a song made for cranking on winding forest roads or cruising Highway 101 around the Olympic Peninsula, a place that always feels like home to Clark. It’s laden with references to snowy White Pass, “mountain tall” evergreens, the smell of burning cottonwood that Clark’s father chopped to heat their riverside home and the hickory shirts he and the other loggers wore to work.

“I didn’t grow up around a lot of lazy people,” Clark says. “I can’t even imagine that. It instilled hard work in me, because I had two parents that worked so hard. I remember my dad getting up at 3 in the morning to go to work, and I think that was a lot of people’s dads.”

“She Smoked in the House” is a lovingly vivid portrait of Clark’s grandmother, Ruth, who worked in the Morton schools and lived next door to Clark growing up. Hearing artists like “Loretta and Hag” on country radio — the only station that came in clearly in Morton — at her grandma’s house helped stoke Clark’s love of country music.

On-court success

Remote logging towns aren’t inherently known for their access to arts and culture, but the Clarks made annual trips to the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle and saw country stars like Ronnie Milsap at the Puyallup Fair. Clark’s mother, Sally, who also worked for a local mill, is an artist and musician and the two played together in a group called Sagebrush and Satin, gigging around local fairs and Grange halls.

Long before “Shucked” was conceived, Clark fell in love with musical theater when her mom took her to see a community production of “Oklahoma!” in the Morton Grade School gym, a brown brick building next to the playfields where stacks of timber sit on the other side of a chain-link fence.

“Our doctor played Curly,” Clark recalls. “A boy who I went to school with, his dad was Jud. … That was a cool thing to me, to see these people that I knew in life become something else. I think that that sparked something in me to want to do that on some level.”

A year later, she was cast as Amaryllis in a production of “The Music Man” put on by the same company and by 9 years old, Clark started taking guitar lessons.

When Clark got older, music took a back seat to sports as she became a standout on the basketball court, setting a record for the most three-pointers made in the state tournament. According to Clark’s high school coach Jay Henderson, a longtime educator with a warm disposition, Clark wasn’t the tallest or fastest, but was the best player on the team due to her work ethic.

“She was the one that, behind the scenes, was always working on her craft,” Henderson says, “and she still does that today.”

Clark was constantly in the gym, getting up shots or working on defensive slides. Her father, Woody, was a passionate, supportive dad who would “drop everything” anytime she wanted to hit the gym, Henderson says. Woody’s chuckle was an unmistakable presence in the stands and when Clark shifted her focus from sports to music, applying that same strong work ethic, Woody’s enthusiasm followed.

When Clark cut her first demo CD, Woody — who friends say was always happy to talk your ear off — invited Henderson over for a listen.

“Two hours later in his truck, sitting out in his driveway, we were listening to it again and again,” Henderson says, smiling, “and his chest kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Clark’s father died in a logging accident in 2001. But stumble into the Bucksnort Pub — with its faded logging murals behind the bar — two decades later and between tales from retired tree toppers and rehashed high school sports glories, you won’t have trouble finding someone who’ll look you straight in the eye, and with a solemn dignity, attest that Woody Clark was “a good man.”

“Small towns can get their bad raps, deservedly in some ways and not deservedly in others,” Cramer says. “But they do rally around their own, and Woody was one of ours. He was a good man.”

As often happens when Morton loses someone, Woody’s memorial service was held in the same grade school gym where Clark saw “Oklahoma!”

“There wasn’t a dry eye and there wasn’t a seat,” says Cramer, whose father was on-site when the accident happened.

Seeing how Morton came together at a difficult time, and how many people her father was able to touch in their small, close-knit community, crystallized the way Clark felt about her hometown.

“I remember thinking, man, the only people that have this many people at their memorial service are famous. Unless they’re in a small town,” she says. “I already loved Morton, but it took it to a deeper level for me then.”

It’s been 27 years since Clark left the town full of mostly single-story homes, none more auspicious than the next. Although the old Cody Café, where her parents met while her mom was waiting tables, has since closed and some of the faces have changed, Morton still largely feels the same as it did growing up, she says.

“Another thing I loved about Morton, I don’t feel like anybody was rich,” Clark says. “I didn’t really know what that meant until I moved to Nashville. I never felt less than because we didn’t have a lot of money, because nobody had a lot of money, and I think there’s something beautiful about that.”

Timber is still the economic and cultural backbone of the community, with Hampton Lumber and Alta Forest Products operating the two mills on the north edge of town. Though over the years, Henderson has noticed some of the generational links being severed, as he sees fewer of Morton’s longtime family names coming through the basketball program the way they once did.

Charlotte Muir, a retired Morton teacher who’s known Clark “since she was born,” started seeing a shift after a contentious battle between environmentalists and the timber industry over forest lands inhabited by endangered spotted owls, a species conservationists viewed as a bellwether of the ecosystem. In 1994, President Bill Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan preserved more than 20 million acres of old-growth forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, curtailing logging on federal lands like the nearby Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

“I can remember when you couldn’t get on Highway 7 because the logging (trucks) would be coming and heading to Tacoma,” Muir says. “You’d wait a long time for the logging trucks to go by. At that time, there were four mills in town and now there’s basically two. You could say everything was cut in half from the logging industry.”

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed in Morton is the way the community supports its own. A thousand miles and a world away from the weekend’s red-carpeted Grammys, where Clark heard her name called among the sea of celebrities in designer clothes, a town full of hickory shirts who know her as the determined basketball star who was “everybody’s best friend” (according to Henderson), cheered her on like they were back in the high school bleachers.

“It’s just exciting, because you think, this is Morton,” Muir says. “Morton doesn’t stand out on the map very much, so when anyone from Morton does something outstanding, you notice it, more than getting lost in a large community.”

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