TORONTO - Growing up in Medicine Hat, Alta., as a Prairie teen with Nashville dreams, Terri Clark focused much of her admiration on one country-music idol: Reba McEntire.
Clark was quite literally a member of McEntire's fan club, obsessing over the flame-haired starlet's country catalogue while nurturing her own musical ambition. Heck, when she thinks back on her favourite Christmas gifts, one of three that comes to mind is the McEntire T-shirt her mother tucked under the tree one year (the others being her first guitar and a live album by Barbara Mandrell).
Well, Clark still has that T-shirt — though it's worn to the point that it looks "as thin as a piece of toilet paper" and it had the midriff sliced off after Clark got "the Shania Twain" idea a few years back.
And she actually had the opportunity to offer the shrivelled memorabilia up in person to McEntire when the country legend came around to record a new version of her 1984 smash "How Blue" for Clark's new covers collection, "Classic," which hit stores this week.
"Most people would've made (that shirt) into a cleaning rag — I looked at Reba and I said, 'You want it?' And she said, 'No thank you,'" laughed Clark, noting that she's become friends with her former idol after roughly 25 years living in Nashville.
"Yeah, I was crazy about Reba McEntire and still am.... If I could have a conversation with my 18-year-old self and go back in time and go: 'Guess what's going to happen?' — I would not have believed it."
Well, the project actually carried other opportunities for similar instances of wish fulfillment.
The 44-year-old Clark collaborated with Tanya Tucker (interpreting the star's own iconic 1972 hit "Delta Dawn"), Dierks Bentley (on George Jones & Tammy Wynette's "Golden Ring"), Jann Arden (for Patsy Cline's "Leavin' On Your Mind") and Dean Brody (Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On.")
Clark knew that she had a slim margin for error with songs so well-loved — especially considering she was, in the case of McEntire and Tucker, collaborating with the very people who made those songs famous.
"That's a fine line to walk because you don't want to piss off the people who looooved the original — 'What did she do? You've ruined my favourite song!' — but I haven't heard that from one person, and there's a lot of people on social media who are very honest, because they can hide behind Facebook," she said, laughing.
A collection of covers might seem less personal than original material, but Clark's roots with these songs run deep.
The first voice to crackle through the speakers belongs to her grandmother (who, along with Clark's grandfather, opened shows for Jones and Johnny Cash on the Montreal club circuit), and the influence of her supportive mother, who died in 2010.
"I felt like my grandparents and my mom were in the room for a lot of it," she said. "It's a labour of love and it's a testament and tribute to my roots and family."
Clark knows that young fans weaned on the pop-infused, arena-geared sounds currently dominating country radio might not be well-versed in some of the dog-eared classics represented here, including songs originally performed by Kitty Wells, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.
So she tried to compensate for that with a roomy production (featuring the same cast of musicians for the entire album) that would allow these classics to sound current.
"I think people are used to having big, fat-sounding records on their stereo — this is as loud and bombastic and big as anything that Taylor (Swift)'s doing but it's a completely different instrumentation and sound," she said.
"I want people, younger people, to be exposed to music they maybe haven't heard before."
Clark's pride in the material is immense. To prove it, Clark — who's still the only Canadian female member of the Grand Ole Opry, the historic venue that doubles as an exclusive, de facto country hall of fame — went down to the Opry's Nashville head office and slid her new disc into the mailbox of every last member.
"I wrote a note and said, 'I hope you guys like this because it really means so much to me to pay tribute to the Opry,'" she said. "I'm carrying the hat — no pun intended — of being the only female Canadian member, so I feel a certain amount of responsibility to that. I want to represent."
Still, the irreverently plain-spoken Clark pokes fun at her standing in the country capital, where she lives.
Clark's first three records — released between 1995 and '98 — all went platinum Stateside. Her last album, 2011's "Roots and Wings," won country album of the year at the Juno Awards, but gained less traction on U.S. radio, to the point where Clark jokes that "people there think I retired or something."
Not that she's particularly uncomfortable with that sort of relative anonymity.
"I'm really happy for people who achieve that next (level) — like Blake (Shelton) and Taylor (Swift), I think that's wonderful — but no thank you," she said.
"I would not want that type of international, household, can't go anywhere, people know who you are (fame). Some people I feel are born into that, they're just built for it. They have the self-esteem for it. I'm all about playing my guitar and making music and singing my songs, and the level of fame isn't that important to me.
"So I think that's how I come out of the other side of it OK no matter what."