To Clint Black, having his own distinctive sound has always been an overriding goal for his music.
It’s one reason he doesn’t listen to much current country music, particularly when he is writing for a new album.
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“The target aside from all of the other obvious ones is to be original, so unless you want to listen to every ounce of everything that’s out there so you’ll know you’re not like anything else, you’re better off, I think, to stay away,” Black said in a recent phone interview.
“I listen to enough of it to know where the boundaries have gotten to, and I don’t want to go as far as they’ve gone,” he said.
Originality was also a big factor in Black, starting to play electric guitar on his albums, beginning with the 1997 release “Nothin’ but the Taillights.” In making demos for that album, he played electric guitar on the songs.
“James Stroud, who produced that album with me, came over to listen to demos,” Black said. “And James always used to joke with me and be in the studio and he’d say ‘Put that guitar down. Get away from it’…We had that kind of relationship like brothers, you know, we’d rib each other. So after we were listening to these demos, he said ‘You know, I think you need to play electric guitar on this album.’ And I just looked at him waiting for the punch line. And he goes, ‘You’re not going to set the world on fire with your guitar playing. That’s not what I’m talking about. But your record will be different.’ So I did it on all but three songs on the ‘Taillights’ album, and that sort of got me on my way.”
And originality had a lot to do with why fans went 10 years before getting a new album from Black, who finally ended his record-making absence in fall 2015 with the release of his 10th studio album, “On Purpose.”
Black was not at all idle during the decade that followed the 2005 release of “Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic.” He toured regularly and was also busy writing music film and television and doing some acting.
But a big reason a new album wasn’t coming was he was trying to sort through offers from major Nashville labels – finding their plan was to have Black to record outside songs in hopes of having a hit single. As an artist who had written or co-written virtually every song on his albums, that was no small issue and went right to the core of perhaps the biggest ingredient in Black’s originality – his songwriting. And the labels were told to expect that Black would insist on creative control over his music.
“I think what they wanted to do was listen to everything I’d been working on and be all kind and thoughtful in the process. Then ultimately they would say ‘If you will just let us find you a hit, we’ll go and work it,’” Black said. “Really what it comes down to is the way those companies work, and I thought maybe it would be different with me. But there are three people at the head of each of those record companies who decide what every artist records and what every artist’s records will sound like, and it’s working for them. But it wouldn’t work for me.”
It wasn’t the first time by a long shot that Black had encountered pressure to record outside songs. In fact, it was pretty much a constant event with his first label, RCA Records.
His 1989 debut album, “Killin’ Time,” became a landmark in country music. Commercially, it was a blockbuster, spawning five number one singles, with “Better Man” and the title song finishing one-two on the year-end country singles chart. By the time the album finished its run, Black was being hailed as a leader of country’s new traditionalist movement that was pushing country back toward its rustic traditional roots.
Despite having co-written or written every song on “Killin’ Time,” whenever it was time for a new album, RCA would pressure him to record outside songs – and Black would refuse.
Finally, Black went to the head of RCA and asked why the label kept pushing him to record outside songs, despite the success of his own material.
“I will never forget what he said to me because it was a crushing blow,” Black said. “He said ‘They just want a little taste.’ So all of that pressure to record outside songs had nothing to do with the quality of my songs. And all it had to do was some political relationships and bargaining, like they’re collecting delegates for award shows. I thought ‘That is absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear. I’m trying to be authentic here, and you’re asking me to throw away my life’s work so you can get me nominated for an award or something? Is that what this is about?’”
Black left RCA after “Nothin’ but the Taillights” and launched his own label, Equity Records. He made three albums on Equity – 1999’s “D’lectrified,” 2004’s “Spend My Time” and “Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic” – before the label was closed in 2006. Then began the search for a new label deal, which didn’t end until Black rejected the three major labels and instead turned toward indie labels and signed with Thirty Tigers.
With his deal in hand, Black went to work on finishing the album that became “On Purpose.” In reality, the project had been under way for some time, as Black had periodically recorded small groups of songs during the period when he was unsigned.
The 14 songs he chose for “On Purpose” make up an album that sounds like prototypical Clint Black, rooted in classic country, but with a touch of pop and a bit more edge. There are a few easy-going rockers (“Still Call It News,” “Beer” and “Making You Smile”) and several ballads, including “Right On Time,” “Summertime Song” and “One Way to Live.” Songs like “Time for That” and “Better and Worse” find a middle ground, generating a relaxed energy and a nice mix between acoustic and electric instrumentation. There’s also a jaunty bluesy duet between Black and his wife of 25 years (as of October), actress Lisa Hartman Black in “You Still Get to Me.”
On his current tour, Black is playing songs from across his career.
“I’m doing a lot of hits,” he said. “I’m doing at least a few songs off of the new CD, and then a couple of songs that are album cuts. I’ve got a great band. Half the band has been with me for almost 30 years.”
And Black has no plans to ease up any time soon with his career.
“I want to keep touring,” he said. “I love doing the shows and I love having a band. And if you want to have a band, you’ve got to tour. But then I’m looking ahead to recording more, not any time soon, but sooner than ‘On Purpose’ happened. I’m also working on some film and television projects.
“I don’t intend to slow down,” he concluded.