Alberta’s Terri Clark reboots old Christmas tunes with some retro country swing on album, tour

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While Terri Clark and her band were touring stadiums with superstar Reba McEntire earlier this year, they would use their downtime productively.

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Clark was the support act for McEntire’s tour in the fall, which was probably a bit early for Christmas songs. But that was mostly what the band would be running through backstage whenever they got the chance.

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“We’ve been taking over Reba McEntire’s arena dressing rooms and rehearsing for this Christmas tour,” says Clark. “It’s stretching us beyond what we’ve been playing. We’ve got an upright bass and I think people who appreciate authentic music are really going to love this.”

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Christmas music may not ordinarily seem the sort of thing that would overly tax a professional band. But Clark’s It’s Christmas … Cheers! tour, which brings her to Calgary’s Southern Jubilee Auditorium on Nov. 29, is based around her 2020 album of the same name. Given that yuletide records are obligatory rites of passage for country artists, it might seem strange that it took nearly 30 years into her recording career to release one. Certainly, the songs are traditional, as is the fact that she teamed up with a who’s-who for duets: Dierks Bentley on Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!, the Oak Ridge Boys for Silver Bells, Vince Gill for Silent Night and Pam Tillis and Suzy Bogguss for Away in a Manger.

What sets it apart, and the reason Clark wanted to cover this well-worn path to begin with, is the backing band. The 10 songs are played by The Time Jumpers, an 11-piece ensemble of top-tier studio players who specialize in a particularly swinging take on western swing music. They are so revered in Nashville that superstar Vince Gill joined their ranks for a decade-long run. Clark says she is a big fan of Christmas music but didn’t want to make an album unless she could take a fresh approach to well-known material.

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“The last thing I wanted to do was limp into a Christmas album and just make another run-of-the-mill record,” she says.

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So when she discovered that The Time Jumpers would be available for studio work, she jumped at the opportunity, even if it meant she would have to sharpen her chops as a player to bring the songs to the stage.

“They just sound like they stepped out of 1950,” says Clark. “It’s a lot of western swing, jazz chord progressions. As musicians, and I’m a musician in my band, too, we’ve been stepping up to the challenge.”

So while you may think another version of Jingle Bells is completely unnecessary at this point, Clark and The Time Jumpers turn it into a shimmering, swinging celebration complete with big-band flourishes and fiery violin and trumpet solos.

Meanwhile, the only contemporary song on the album is the wistful country waltz Cowboy Christmas, which benefits from the picking and vocal talents of Ricky Skaggs.

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“I went with (collaborators) who I think a lot of people would consider tried-and-true country artists, Opry members who have been around for a while and people I have friendships or a rapport with,” Clark says. “There was no real list. I felt if I was going for a retro sound with The Time Jumpers I needed to stick with the more traditional artists like Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs and Pam Tillis and Suzy Bogguss. The only newer artist on there is Dierks Bentley and he’s not so new anymore, to be quite honest. He’s been around for a while now.”

Clark is friends with Bentley, having worked with him just before the studio sessions for the Christmas album as part of his tongue-in-cheek, 1990s-flavoured country cover act Hot Country Knights. That included making a video for the innuendo-heavy ballad You Make It Hard, which featured Clark lovingly crooning to a mullet-wigged Bentley, aka Hot Country Knights vocalist Douglas “Doug” Douglason, on a bed in a perfectly cheesy video.

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“I figured he owed me one after that video,” she says.

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While Clark’s self-titled debut didn’t come out until 1995, she is arguably still associated with that decade. It was a golden era for contemporary country music and Clark was one of Canada’s great exports. Raised in Medicine Hat, where she would sit in the family kitchen practicing her takes on classics by Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris. She moved to Nashville at an early age where, as her online bio states, she got her start “playing for tips” at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a beloved honky-tonk across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium.

Since then, she has sold more than five million records, earned three Juno Awards, 19 Canadian Country Music Association awards and, in 2004, became the first female artist from the Great White North to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. In 2018, she was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Since 2016, she has been hosting the radio series/podcast Country Gold with Terri Clark, which is internationally syndicated and airs on more than 145 stations across Canada and the US In the spring, she will return to McEntire’s stadium tour.

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While it may be overstating it to suggest she is at the reflective point of her career, Clark admits that she is in no rush to release new material.

“I’ve got a lot of things in the hopper that have to do with my past catalog,” she says. “I am a songwriter and I’m going to write again. I’ll release music at some point. But everybody is so nostalgic for 1990s country right now, it’s top of everybody’s mind. So thinking up ways to freshen up some of my older songs, maybe get some special guests to sing with me and rerecord a couple of them, those are things I’m working on currently. I’m hoping to get back to songwriting.

“I just never know what is going to happen next. I spent 25 years on a hamster wheel where the minute I finished one record I’d be writing for another one. I’ve taken the last couple of years to just be and go fishing and pursue hobbies, spend time with family and not really thinking about having to put our new product. Songwriting for me, at this point, is just for the joy of it and not because I think I’ll have a hit song on the charts.”

Terri Clark will play at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary on Nov. 29, The Enmax Center in Lethbridge on Dec. 1, The Esplanade Arts and Heritage Center at Medicine Hat on Dec. 2, The Shell Theater at Fort Saskatchewan on Dec. 3, Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Center in Camrose on Dec. 4 and St. Albert’s Arden Theater on Dec. 6.

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