Country singer prides himself on work ethic
Wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, Black and his smooth good lucks and regular-guy voice ushered in the era of the '90s country megastar. He crossed over into pop around the same time as Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson, putting out the sentimental love song "A Better Man" in 1989, which made him the first male country singer with a No. 1 debut hit in a decade and a half. His first two albums, 1989's "Killin' Time" and 1990's "Put Yourself in My Shoes," would go platinum times five.
"He was part of a renaissance for country music at the time, where it just shifted to real songwriting," says Phyllis Stark, Nashville-based executive editor of country music for radio-info.com. "That's primarily where Clint had a huge advantage — he was a fantastic songwriter as well as a great singer. He had access to not only the best of the best Nashville songs, but his own songs, too, which were on par."
In 1991, when the record industry famously changed its retail rules, counting albums more accurately with a high-tech system known as SoundScan, country stars were immediate beneficiaries. Suddenly, Brooks was able to become a pop megastar, hitting No. 1 and starting a streak of sales dominance that would help define the decade. Black, however, says he couldn't fully take advantage. He was in the middle of a conflict with his manager, Bill Ham, over royalties and publishing, which would lead to a lawsuit.
"It was a real ugly battle, and (Ham) managed to get the record company to sue me at the same time," Black recalls. "I'm enjoying making my third album — and everybody put out their third album (with the sales boost from) SoundScan — and I just watched it go by from the sidelines.
"I'm all past it, you know," he adds. "But I do have to understand my own history in order to not repeat it."
For a while in the late '80s and early '90s, Black seemed like he was scoring a new smash every few minutes, but in fact, he recalls, he actually was taking his time. His label, RCA, wanted a new release every year, but he typically ran up to 26 months. So it wasn't especially surprising when he withdrew from the music business in 2001, when Hartman (by then his wife) gave birth to their daughter, Lily. Black wouldn't make another album until 2004. His last album of new material, 2005's "Drinkin' Songs & Other Logic," was characteristically straightforward, well-crafted and inspired by Bob Wills and James Taylor alike. Black threatens every few years to put out something new, but it keeps not happening.
In part, that's because Black's own record label, Equity, which helped break promising country band Little Big Town, went out of business in 2008. Investors are still hashing out the financial issues in court, causing further delays, he says.
"I'm free to make music — I'm sitting on about 40 or 45 new songs that I can't wait to put out," Black points out, adding that he's working on soundtrack songs for an upcoming musical, which he can't really talk about, and trying to sell his new material to record labels. "I don't think there's any rush. It's going to be quite a while before there's going to be a finished album.
"I'm one of those people that thinks things happen for a reason, and you just have to look for the reason. I've always been that way," he says. "I just keep my head down and work hard on what I do."