My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Hayden Nicholas

Album Review: Clint Black – ‘On Purpose’

711Wx-StaxL._SX522_In the seven years since we last heard new music from Clint Black (and ten since his last full album), the country music landscape has changed beyond recognition. Last week’s On Purpose is unlikely to garner much love from country radio, but Black’s return is surely something to celebrate for those of us who became castaways during the sea change in commercial tastes.

Black has made good use of his long hiatus. He wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s 14 tracks. The album has reunited him with his longtime co–producer James Stroud and while the final product doesn’t outdo anything that they did in the past, it more than holds it own against Black’s impressive back catalog. Black sounds as energetic and enthusiastic as he did back in 1989, and his voice is as good as ever. There are no huge artistic stretches; the album sounds exactly like something he would have released back in his commercial heyday, and I suspect that most fans will be more than OK with that. Clint was never quite the traditionalist he was given credit for, but his sound was always firmly rooted in country music, with fiddles, steel and harmonica on prominent display. There also was — and still is — a good deal of fancy electric guitar work, but not the heavy-handed arena rock-type that has become all too common in recent years. There is no pandering to current commercial tastes, just vintage Clint Black from start to finish.

Black’s old songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas co-wrote three of the album’s tracks: “Doing It Now For Love”, the catchy “Calling It News” — which laments the same old, same old dominating the headlines, and the excellent poignant ballad “The Last Day”, which finds an elderly couple reminiscing about the past, well aware that time is starting to run out. Frank Rogers co-wrote three tracks, including the current single “Time For That” and the excellent ballad “Breathing Air”, which is a lot more interesting than the title suggests. The tender love ballad is my favorite track on the album.

Steve Wariner shares co-writing credits on two tracks: “One Way to Live” is quite good but “Right on Time” is rather forgettable. The legendary Bill Anderson collaborated with Clint and Bob DiPiero for the album’s sole party song “Beer”, which ought to serve as an example to the bro-country crowd that drinking songs can still have intelligent lyrics. Big & Rich provide the background vocals.

I have a pet peeve about artists who, after long breaks between albums, include a remake of an older song on their comeback collections. I was, therefore, slightly disappointed to see a new version of “You Still Get To Me”, Clint’s 2008 duet with his wife Lisa Hartman Black, on the track listing. It’s bluesier than the original, but it seems like an unnecessary remake. However, the album contains a generous 14 tracks, so it’s a minor complaint at best.

While On Purpose may not break any new ground, it is sure to please Clint’s old fans, who hopefully will support it so it can overcome the inevitable lack of radio support.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Clint Black – ‘Drinkin’ Songs & Other Logic’

drinkin songs and other logicClint’s second album for Equity was to be his last full length album to date. It was a return to form, and to more traditional sounds. However, it was not very successful commercially, with none of the singles charting within the top 40. Clint produced, and as usual, he wrote every song, mostly with confrere Hayden Nicholas, and his band provided the backings.

Steve Wariner co-wrote and guests on electric guitar on the title track, which is definitely a standout, with a bright up-tempo mod belying the sadness as Clint advises a diet of classic country music washed down with whiskey as a cure for a broken heart. There are liberal references to both singers and songs to pick up on, and I really enjoyed this track:

It’s a good life here in the nightlife, bathin’ in the neon glow
The bartender, me and the kings of country playin’ everything we know
The Red Headed Stranger’s smoking, he burned a hole in his guitar
And I’m drowning in a whiskey river, Lord, that’s running right through this bar

Clint himself sounds thoroughly energized and committed here, and sets the tone for an album full of drinking songs.

‘A Big One’ is another gem in the same vein, with a catchy barroom singalong vibe, which Clint wrote with Tim Nichols. He cheerfully points the finger of blame for his drinking at his ex:
I only need one good reason to keep on drinkin’

(You can guess what, or who, that is.)

He also takes refuge in the bottle in the sad but less memorable ballad ‘Thinkin’ Of You’. Western swing ballad ‘I Don’t Wanna Tell You’ has the protagonist stopping off for a beer while putting off that conversation about leaving, while the steel-laced ‘Longnecks & Rednecks’ is an upbeat paean to honky tonks and beer drunk from the bottle.

The very traditional shuffle ‘Heartaches’ compares physical ailments with emotional ones, with Clint begging the doctor for an intravenous injection of “something strong” to help with the pain in his heart .

‘Too Much Rock’ complains a little too obliquely about the state of country music:

I’m gonna put down this hoe and pick up my guitar
Plant some seeds down on Music Row
But it seems like this old town is a lot like on the farm
I keep plantin’, nothin’ ever seems to grow

His heart is in the right place, but the song doesn’t feel focussed.

The minor-keyed Western number ‘Code Of The West’ looks back with a wistful nostalgia to the black and white morality of old cowboy movies, which is earnest but cliche’d. The cowboy theme is more successful in the valedictory ‘Go It Alone’, a subtle farewell to an old friend.

The pessimistic ‘Rainbow In The Rain’ is also good:

There’s no such thing as old forgotten memories
No such thing as only one to blame
And I’m not one who’ll never see the forest for the trees
But I can’t find a rainbow in the rain

‘Back Home In Heaven’ is a touching song about coping with bereavement, inspired by the death of cowriter Hayden Nicholas’s mother. Little Big Town contribute (not very prominent) backing vocals, and it had a special resonance for them too, as it was Kimberly Schlapman’s first recording session after the tragically early death of her first husband. The soothing, pretty melody and sweetly inspirational lyrics work well together, and this is one of my favorites on the album.

The only real mis-step is the silly ‘Undercover Cowboy’, about a sleazy would-be lothario preying on women in bars.

Clint Black’s music can be hit and miss, and having not enjoyed the album prior to this one, I passed on it when it originally came out. Catching up for this review has been a pleasant surprise. Overall, while not in Killin’ Time territory, this is a very good album which stands among Clint’s better efforts. The limited promotion due to being on Clint’s own, now defunct, label, means it may have slipped through the cracks for many, but it’s definitely worth tracking down.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Clint Black – ‘Nothin’ But The Taillights’

Clint_Black,_Nothin'_But_the_TaillightsAfter the somewhat lackluster One Emotion Clint Black regrouped by issuing his first Greatest Hits album, an effort surprising for its poor representation of his debut album (only “Killin’ Time” and “A Better Man” are included) among other noticeable absences. It still managed to go double platinum and included two big hits – the guitar ballad “Like The Rain” (a favorite of mine) and somewhat aggressive “Half Way Up.” The former would be another #1 hit for Black in the fall of 1996.

He returned with a new album in 1997, previewing it with “Still Holding On,” a duet with Martina McBride. Co-written with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart, the track served as the lead single for both Black and McBride’s new releases that year. It peaked at #11 and became Black’s first single not to chart top 10. I’ve always loved the song and consider it a nice slice of pop-country, even if it is a tad generic from two label mates looking to cash in on each other’s success.

The next three singles from Nothin’ But The Taillights helped to greatly reverse Black’s fortunes and became three of his most impactful hits since his debut album. Black and Skip Ewing co-wrote “Something That We Do,” a love song inspired by Black’s marriage to actress Lisa Hartman Black. It’s a beautiful song, albeit a tad long, and one of the most endearing professions of love since Alan Jackson’s “I’ll Love You All Over Again.”

“Something That We Do” may’ve peaked at #2, but his next two singles were chart toppers. The Steve Wariner co-written title track is an upbeat guitar heavy (and comical) wife-pissed-off song that was played to death in early 1998 to the point where I can’t even listen to it today. I don’t hate it, but the novelty has worn off. I have the opposite reaction to “The Shoes Your Wearin,’” which finds Black writing with Hayden Nicholas again. I love everything about this track, from the drums and electric guitars to Black’s vocal.

Black and Nicholas also teamed up for the next single, “Loosen Up My Strings,” which peaked at #12. Another thickly produced number; Black’s popularity likely benefited its chart run, as it should’ve been left as an album track. The neo-traditional-leaning “You Don’t Need Me Know” charted lower, peaking at #29. I don’t even remember it being a single, but it’s an excellent song with a refreshingly understated melody and vocal.

Of the album tracks, “Our Kind of Love” is a country/bluegrass tune with Alison Krauss and Union Station and “Ode To Chet” is a classic Black type song in tribute to Chet Atkins, which features fancy guitar work from Atkins himself, Dann Huff, Wariner, and Mark Knopler. Both are fabulous, although Black could’ve benefited from giving a more restrained vocal on the collaboration with Krauss. It’s beautiful melody but he comes on a bit too strong for it all to be fully appreciated. “That Something In My Life” is also very strong while “You Know It All” and “Bitter Side of Sweet” are the album’s two weakest offerings.

Nothin’ But The Taillights really is the project that put Black back on top. Not since his debut had he experienced such impactful signature hits has he does here. I really enjoy this period of Black’s career as this is when I started following and enjoying his music as a kid. If Killin’ Time was Black’s neo-traditional masterpiece, Nothin’ But The Taillights marked his highest artistic achievement in pop and even somewhat rock country.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Clint Black – ‘The Hard Way’

thehardwayClint Black’s third album was delayed somewhat by his legal battles with his management team. When the case was finally settled, The Hard Way was released in July 1992. Clint shared production duties with James Stroud and had a hand in writing all of the album’s songs, mostly with his usual songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas, but he also collaborated with a few outside writers as well. Unfortunately, this is the point in Clint’s career when the quality of his songs began to falter; The Hard Way is an uneven and largely unmemorable affair that would likely have benefited had Black not insisted on recording only material for which he shared songwriting credits.

By now Clint’s popularity had lost some ground to Garth Brooks, but The Hard Way’s singles were still all well received by radio; “We Tell Ourselves” reached #2, “Burn One Down” (my personal favorite) landed at #4 and “When My Ship Comes In” climbed all the way to #1. Oddly, “When My Ship Comes In”, the album’s highest-charting single was omitted from Clint’s greatest hits package which was released a few years later.

The album marks the beginning of a subtle shift away from traditional country with songs like the slightly rock-tinged “Something To Cry About”, which is the album’s weakest track. The rest are fairly conventional recordings which are firmly within the scope of what was considered to be mainstream at the time. None of them are terrible, but none of them are particularly great, either, with the exception of “Burn One Down” which is as good as anything on Clint’s first two albums. There are a few album cuts that I like better than the singles, such as “A Woman Has Her Way”, “Wake Up Yesterday”, and “There Never Was a Train”, which only appears on the CD version of the album, as RCA was still engaging in its stingy practice of only including 9 tracks on cassette.

The Hard Way is not Clint’s very best work, although he would go on to release a few albums that were much worse. That being said, it is far superior to most of what Nashville is trying to peddle today. It is worth seeking out only because it can be obtained very inexpensively; otherwise, I would just stick with the Greatest Hits album and give this one a miss.

Grade: B

Album Review: Clint Black – ‘Put Yourself In My Shoes’

put yourself in my shoes

Clint Black has one of the most stunning impacts on country music of any new artist with his 1998 debut album Killin’ Time. Its four #1 hit singles (and one #3) and the sheer quality of the young singer-songwriter’s work catapulted Black to the top at the very start of his career. My colleague Razor X reviewed that groundbreaking debut album when we looked back at the 20th anniversary of the Class of ’89 – catch up with his review here.

Clint’s second album was less remarkable than his exceptional debut but still a solid collection, which James Stroud produced. They utilised Clint’s road band once more, and they do a nice job, with Clint himself playing guitars and his trademark harmonica. He wrote every song, mostly with Hayden Nicholas, and while he had clearly used up his best material on the debut there are some good songs here.

The harmonica-led title track, which was the lead single. The fact that its peak of #4 made it his poorest performing single to date is testament to the stunning success he had enjoyed so far. The song itself isn’t bad, but not that memorable either, with the jazzy mid-tempo tune detracting from the heartbreak. Luckily the remaining singles were better.

In fact, the album’s second single was its very best song, the outstanding ‘Loving Blind’, which would have fitted in well on Killin’ Time. It was Clint’s fifth chart topper, and was a solo composition. The disenchanted protagonist has lost in love, and feels isolated:

Well, I sit here all alone
No one’s gonna do me wrong
Tonight

Well I don’t know what I need
Since I’ve been freed
I’m a horse without a rider
And there’s no one left to take the lead

I’ve been loving blind
Loving every heart I could call mine
I’ve been loving blind
So sure there was something I could find
But I just couldn’t see
There was nothing there for me

The followup, ‘One More Payment’ is a good-humored Western Swing take on hard times and debt, also written with Russell. It reached #7 and is very good. The downbeat ballad ‘Where Are You Now’, another fine song, with Clint exploring the lower extent of his baritone voice, was the album’s final single and its second #1 hit.

Also excellent is the insightful and empathetic ‘A Heart Like Mine’, which explores the difficulties and uncertainties of dating:

I crossed that line and got that cold shoulder
You probably think I’m full of it
But I don’t think you’ll ever find such emptiness

This heart of mine’s
Just looking for
A heart like mine
Who’s just looking for
What it can find
Still looking for
A heart like mine

The gently melodic melancholy ‘The Gulf Of Mexico’ has tasteful Spanish guitar and poetic lyrics as Clint says farewell to a loved one. ‘The Goodnight Loving’ is a western story song about a past-Civil War outlaw determined to die before he goes to prison, which is pretty good although it’s stronger on portrait and mood than plot.

A couple of the tracks work less well for me, like the boring ‘Muddy Water’. ‘The Old Man’ has a strong melody but its pondering on old age is just not that interesting. ‘This Nightlife’ picks up the tempo, but the pace seems to be at odds with the wearied lyrics.

Like its predecessor, this album has been certified triple platinum. While it’s not quite as good as that stellar effort, it’s worth adding to your collection, especially at used prices.

Grade: B+

Spotlight Artist: Clint Black

clint_blackClinton Patrick “Clint” Black was born February 4, 1962 in Long Beach, NJ as the youngest of G.A. and Ann Black’s four children. Black was raised in Houston, moving from NJ to Texas before turning a year old. By age fifteen, Black was playing harmonica and guitar and had joined his brothers in a band. He would drop out of high school (and end his formal schooling) to play with the band full-time.

Black soon became a solo act and in the early 1980s he held gigs playing lounges by night and working construction (among other jobs) during the day. His interest in country music came through Reba McEntire and George Strait, who were bringing the traditional sounds he loved back to the genre. Black had a chance meeting with guitarist Hayden Nicholas in 1987, and was soon sending demos to promoter Sammy Alfano and meeting with ZZ Top’s manager Bill Ham, who quickly signed him as a client.

Not long after RCA Records came calling and signed Black to a record deal. His debut album Killin’ Time was released in May 1989 and success came instantaneously. Black’s first four singles (“A Better Man,” “Killin’ Time,” “Nobody’s Home” and “Walkin’ Away) topped the charts and the album reached multi-platinum status. In addition, he was the first male artist to have his debut single hit #1 in fourteen years and the breakout star in the famed ‘class if ‘89’ which saw debuts from future genre heavyweights including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt among others. The success lead to bountiful recognition from the industry, with the CMA giving him the Horizon Award in 1989 and the ACM showering him with four awards including New Male and Top Male Vocalist and Album of the Year for Killin’ Time in 1990.

His sophomore effort Put Yourself In My Shoes came at the end of that year and he married actress Lisa Hartman in 1991. His second album wasn’t as revered as his debut despite selling more than three million units and containing two #1 hits. He also took part in a Roy Rogers tribute album, collaborating with Rogers on the duet “Hold On Partner.”

Black’s career took a hit in 1992 when he sued Ham for breach of contract, claiming he was being stiffed in royalties for his songs, all of which he had a hand in writing. Black was also hit with a paternity suit from a supposed former girlfriend who claimed Black had fathered her child. Being in and out of court put a strain on Black’s career and caused a one-year delay in the release of his third album, The Hard Way. In that time the country music industry had changed dramatically (Brooks and Tritt were now superstars while Billy Ray Cyrus was a cult favorite), causing RCA to wonder if he’d regain his footing. They need not worry as “When My Ship Comes In” would go #1 in early 1993.

He followed with a sexier image and No Time To Kill in 1994. A duet with Wynonna Judd, “A Bad Goodbye,” was a huge hit at radio and even prompted the ‘Black and Wy’ tour in 1994, the same year he would join Vince Gill as co-host for the CMA Awards. Black took part in winning Album of the Year that evening thanks to his recording of “Desperado” on the multi-artist Eagles tribute, Common Thread: The Songs of The Eagles.

Success continued with One Emotion, and in 1995 he topped the charts with “Summer’s Comin.’” His first Greatest Hits album followed in 1996, and Nothin’ But The Tailights was released in 1997. Black was on top once again, thanks in part to major hits in the title track, “Something That We Do” and “The Shoes You’re Wearin.’” A duet with Martina McBride, “Still Holdin’ On” would be his first single to miss the top 10.

Black was able to keep the momentum going with the all-acoustic D’lectrified in 1999 and had major hits in “When I Said I Do” (a duet with his wife) and the harmonica-laced “Been There” with Steve Wariner. He and Hartman-Black had their only child, Lily Pearl, in May 2001. Black took a three-year hiatus from his career to focus on being a father.

He left RCA during this period to open his own label, Equity Records, and returned with Spend My Time in 2004, producing a top 20 hit with the title track. Another full-length project, Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, followed in 2005 and The Long Cool EP was released in 2008. The EP contains Black’s last hit to date, “The Strong One,” which is the first solo single of Black’s career for which he doesn’t have a writing credit.

Equity closed that December amid economic difficulties and the departure of Little Big Town, the label’s only hit-making act. Black’s been very quiet in the years since (although he has been touring quite a bit around New England lately), but I’ve heard he’s working on new music he’s calling the best of his career. The new album is expected sometime this year and from what I understand there’s a push to get him back on the radio again. We shall see how it all turns out, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy our look back at his career throughout the month.

Class of ’89 Album Review: Clint Black – ‘Killin’ Time’

Killin' Time by Clint Black (1989, RCA Records)

Killin' Time by Clint Black (1989, RCA Records)

I remember well the day back in February 1989 that I first heard a new song on the radio called “A Better Man”. I stopped what I was doing to give it my full attention, and thought to myself, “That is the best Merle Haggard song I’ve heard in years. I can’t remember the last time Merle sounded so energetic.” I was shocked when the song was over to learn that it wasn’t sung by Merle Haggard, but by a newcomer named Clint Black. Apparently I wasn’t alone in thinking it was Merle, because there was a lot of talk in the media at the time about the similarity of Black’s vocal style to Haggard’s.

“A Better Man” quickly shot to #1, and 27-year-old Clint Black was suddenly the hottest commodity in country music. Fans waited anxiously for his debut album Killin’ Time, to be released. It finally hit record stores on May 2, 1989, around the same time that the title track was released as a single. It too quickly shot to #1. Black swept the 1989 CMA awards, winning in six different categories. When Billboard published its year-end chart for 1989, “A Better Man” was the #1 single country record for the year, followed by “Killin’ Time” which finished at #2 — no mean feat for a newcomer who only one year earlier had been playing the club circuit around Houston.

Twenty years after its release, Killin’ Time remains my favorite Clint Black album. In total, it produced five singles, four of which (“A Better Man”, “Killin’ Time”, “Nobody’s Home”, and “Walkin’ Away”) went to #1. The fifth and final single, “Nothing’s News” peaked at #3, breaking the streak of consecutive #1s. All of the songs on the album were either written by Black, or co-written by Black and Hayden Nicholas.

The remaining album tracks are of sufficient quality that they could have been released as singles. The album opens with “Straight From The Factory”, a Western swing number which immediately sets the tone for the rest of the album. At the time I hoped it would be released as a single, but I suspect the double entendre “you’re the only lock that’s made to fit my key” was considered too risque for mainstream country radio. By today’s standards, it seems pretty tame, especially when one considers that songs like “Bob That Head” have gotten airplay.

Another favorite is the uptempo “I’ll Be Gone”, which treats the listener to Black’s harmonica-playing skills. This track was only included on the CD version of the album. Those who purchased the LP or cassette missed a real treat. “Winding Down” is a more mellow track, to which anyone who’s ever stopped by happy hour on the way home from a rough day at work can relate.

Killin’ Time was a breath of fresh air when it was first released; it infused country music with a little high octane, which it needed at the time. Twenty years later, it remains a breath of fresh air, but for different reasons. It’s nice to listen to an album that was able to appeal to the mainstream (it was certified triple platinum) without dumbing down the lyrics or implementing a highly-layered “wall of sound” production approach, or dragging out two-to-three-minute songs to four or five minutes.

By the end of 1990, Black had been ousted as the top male newcomer by Garth Brooks. The media had manufactured a rivalry between the two, which Brooks ultimately won, but few would have foreseen that outcome when Killin’ Time was first released. It established Clint Black as a major country music star. Though his future musical choices were sometimes disappointing,he remains my favorite alumnus of the Class of ’89.

Grade: A

Listen to Clint Black at Last FM:

Killin’ Time
Nothing’s News

Killin’ Time can be purchased at Amazon or iTunes.