In order to become truly happy, Canadian country veteran Terri Clark knew she had to leave the one relationship she had worked so hard to build — the one with BNA Records, the Nashville-based label owned by Sony.
After spending 14 years on a major label, Clark announced in 2008 that her constant pursuit for a hit record had worn her out, creatively. Grateful for her past success but more than ready to forge on independently, Clark left BNA and finally felt liberated. She said it was no surprise that after her announcement to leave BNA, the subsequent album — 2009's "The Long Way Home," released on her own Baretrack Records — immediately poured out of her.
Three years later, Clark says leaving BNA was the best career decision she ever made, no matter how many records she sells.
"I had dreamed about [a major-label deal] for so long that I was deathly afraid of losing it," Clark, 43, said. "But I found myself not as a happy as I wanted to be in the moment. I'm not climbing the charts right now, but I'm the happiest I've ever been professionally."
Clark, who brings her "Unplugged" tour to Rams Head on Stage on Saturday and Sunday, can afford to chase happiness and not money. Her career — beginning with a platinum-selling self-titled debut in 1995 to last year's "Roots and Wings" — has won her multiple No. 1 hits, 17 Canadian Country Music Association awards and the distinction of being the first Canadian woman inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.
It hasn't always been a charmed path. In 2001, Clark faced a DUI charge and ultimately pleaded guilty to reckless driving. Four years later, she planned her wedding to long-time tour manager Greg Kaczor on Country Music Television's "In the Moment." She filed for divorce less than a year and a half later. She says BNA pushed her to do the show because she had an album, "Life Goes On," coming out.
"That is not who I am," she said. "With my personal life, I keep things for myself — but I didn't that time. It's not something I lose sleep over. I'm just glad they don't replay it every five minutes."
And then came her mother's cancer battle. "The Long Way Home" was written as during the "roller coaster" of the sickness, and it deals with its impact on Clark ("When someone has cancer, the whole family and everyone who loves them does, too," she said). When her mother died in 2010, Clark allowed herself time to grieve, but also to reflect on her own life.
"'Roots and Wings' is about getting back to the business of living, smiling and giving myself permission to enjoy life again and not have that survivor's remorse," she said.
On the new album, Clark pays tribute to her mother — who helped her daughter write "A Million Ways to Run" from "The Long Way Home" but refused to take a writing credit, she said — with the Alison Krauss-assisted song "Smile."
On the somber track, Clark recalls her mother telling her to "smile, and know you're not alone / … I'm always in your heart, even when we are apart." Clark said she began writing the song two weeks after her death.
"It was so hard to sit in that room and sing it," she said of the recording process. "It took me a while to actually play it in front of people."
It's Clark's earnest approach to songwriting that keeps her drawing an audience. She says she has "a lot of music left," and that she'll start recording her next project this fall. Until then, she'll be on tour, a place where Clark recently noticed her fan base was "heading in a different direction."
"People are coming to shows that were very unaware of [my] commercial years," Clark said. "They just like the unplugged show they were dragged to by their friends."
Word-of-mouth support versus fruitlessly chasing the charts? Clark knows what works for her.
"It's nice to be able to engage with this fan base that I've worked to build, brick by brick," she said.
If you go
Terri Clark performs Saturday and Sunday at Rams Head on Stage, 33 West St., Annapolis. Doors open at 8 p.m. Saturday and at 7 p.m. Sunday. $35 each night. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadonstage.com.