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Ashley Clark’s story is one of closing doors and opening windows, of taking advantage of lucky breaks and following your dreams even if it means making tough choices. The story takes the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from sleeping on the floor of a stranger’s house in Nashville to having one of the most powerful managers in the music business (Simon Fuller) hook him up with one of the most successful producers in history (Mutt Lange) and signing to one of the most legendary record labels (Capitol Records and its new imprint IRS Nashville) to make his musical dreams come true.
Clark grew up one of 11 children born to a traveling Pentecostal preacher. Throughout Clark’s childhood, the family was constantly on the road, an experience he likens to “a traveling circus.” Everyone was expected to perform as part of the services and they would find themselves at an ever-rotating array of churches, tent revivals, and festivals across the South. While the upbringing was far from what one might call “normal,” and things that other kids take for granted (a stable home, traditional schooling) were lacking, it gave him an amazing crash course in music. “My dad bought me a fiddle when I was five,” Clark recalls. “He thought I was naturally gifted at it and said, ‘That’s your instrument.’ We would stay awake sometimes until the sun came up at bluegrass festivals, hanging out in parking lots or campsites and just play all night. That’s how I learned to play.”
Clark loved the effect his playing and singing had on the audiences but it began to come into conflict with the family’s mission. “I felt like I was trying to be someone I’m not,” he says. “My parents hated the word ‘entertainer.’ They’d say, ‘We don’t entertain people; we change people.’ But looking back now, I was an entertainer, a frustrated entertainer, because I got the most joy singing, making people smile, and being on stage.” Clark’s efforts to balance both worlds became more and more challenging.
After a couple of half-hearted breaks with his family to strike out on his own (including two months crashing with his cousin, a pre-OneRepublic Ryan Tedder), Clark decided to move to Nashville for good. “Back home in Virginia, we all had bunk beds, and I was lying there in my bunk thinking ‘I’m a man, I can do whatever I want, and I don’t want to be here,’” Clark says. “I had a friend take me down to the used car lot. I saw a 1986 Ford Bronco, and was like, ‘That one.’ I drove to Nashville and showed up at a friend’s house and said, ‘Can I stay here?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m sleeping on the couch. You can sleep on the floor.’”
Word got out around town about a new lightning-fast fiddle player and soon Clark was playing with a newly christened American Idol winner named Carrie Underwood. He played in Underwood’s touring band for two and half years, traveling the world and figuring that he’d found a great life as a working musician, but fate came calling in the form of a reality TV show. One night, Clark saw a promo calling for bands to appear on an upcoming Fox show called The Next Great American Band. “I called two of my brothers and said, ‘Guys, we can win this. I know we can.’” And indeed, they did. Christening themselves Sons of Sylvia, Clark and his brothers were signed to the management company of the show’s creator Simon Fuller. It became clear to Fuller that the true star of his newly signed band was its magnetic lead singer and fiddle player Ashley. And soon enough, when the super producer Mutt Lange said he was interested in finding a new country artist with whom to work, Fuller knew he had the perfect candidate.
“Ashley ticked all the boxes,” Lange says. “He has an incredible range and can sing anything, he’s a very talented writer, and as a musician, he plays with aggression. On the fiddle and the mandolin, he’s an animal.” To Clark, it felt as if he had hit the lottery both personally and professionally. “I flew out to L.A. and we just hit it off,” Clark says. “We talked about music, we talked about life. For eight hours, we just talked. Everyone left. Simon left. It was just the two of us in Simon’s office. The next thing I knew Mutt said, ‘We’re going to start recording in the Bahamas.’”
Lange was knocked out by Clark’s talent after hearing his initial batch of songs. “I thought they were very universal,” he says. To Lange, Clark’s roots loom large in his music — a blend of country and pop informed by the Americana styles Clark absorbed as a kid and the soulfulness of his voice. “He has authenticity in spades,” Lange says. Over the next two years, they reworked Clark’s songs, co-wrote a host of others, and collaborated closely on an entire album, something Lange hadn’t done with a brand new artist for 20 years. That last artist? Shania Twain. To say Lange is selective is quite the understatement. Having sold in excess of a quarter billion albums, his dance card is made up primarily of superstar bands looking to make a sonic leap (most recently Muse and Maroon 5) and his batting average is incredibly high, so Clark knows that he is beyond lucky. And he aims to take full advantage of his good fortune, setting his sights ever higher.
After all he’s been through, Clark has never lost the initial thrill he experienced early on; the one that comes from playing for an audience and affecting their mood with his songs, voice, and playing. He wants listeners to experience a range of emotions while listening to the songs on his upcoming album. “On ‘Greyhound,’ I want people to feel that longing,” he says. “On ‘So Sexy It Hurts,’ I want people to dance around in the bathroom in their underwear. “On ‘To the Moon,’ I want people to be cruising in their car at night and forget all their problems. And on ‘One More Time,’ I want people to be making out and falling in love.”
And for himself? “All I want is to keep my eyes on the prize,” he says.
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