Country Music

Color Coding With Clint Black

Clint Black is not color-blind. In fact, as he told Taste of Country last year, as he was writing songs for his latest album, On Purpose, he assigned each song a color as a way to ensure he was making a well-balanced record, something that applies just as much to his set lists. “It’s important to the listener that the music doesn’t bog down or that it never seems to let up,” Black says via email. “I try to give myself a way to ‘see’ what the pacing sounds like. But I also feel that songs have a color when it comes to stage lighting. When a lighting director is working up the scenes for a show, I’ll sometimes have reactions to his choices. I don’t get involved though, unless a color doesn’t feel right.

“For example; A song that is ripping along at a fast pace, can’t possible be lighted in green, right! HA!", he continues, apparently cracking himself up. "Or imaging a slow song in red. That doesn’t work for me. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would find that ridiculous but that’s how it feels to me.”

From playing clubs and coffeehouses around Katy, where he grew up, Black became one of the most successful country artists of his era. According to his website, he has sold more than 20 million albums and scored 33 Top 10 hits, 22 of which reached No. 1. Yet On Purpose is his first album of original material in a decade, since 2005’s Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic. As you’ll see in a bit, a handful of big-time labels expressed interest in new music from him, but Black ultimately turned them down in favor of Thirty Tigers, the Nashville-based independent label and distribution arm whose artists include Americana favorites Jason Isbell and Elizabeth Cook. A lot has changed since Drinkin’ Songs, and not all of it for the better, but Black was kind enough to answer a few more questions before tonight’s show at Stafford Centre.

Houston Press: Besides through the natural course of a tour, do you make it back to Texas very often these days?
Clint Black: I do get back a lot. I’m in Texas every other week, it seems! I come home to see family a lot, but I also have friends in DFW I’ll swing through to see.

When did you first pick up a guitar?
For guitar, I was 15. I started harmonica at 13. On guitar, I learned three chords and I was off to the races, playing the two songs I learned for all my friends and anyone who would listen. I suppose from that moment on, I’ve been on the trail, searching for more audiences.

Do you have a favorite guitar?
Yes, I do have my favorites! My Clint Black Signature Model Taylor is my best-loved acoustic. I use Barbera pick ups and LR Baggs preamps. For stage, I play that through a TC Electronics G-Natural pedal board. For electrics, I have my array of Tom Anderson guitars; Butterscotch Tele, Les Paul-style “Bulldog” and my American flag-themed Anderson Strat.

Did you take to songwriting naturally or did you struggle with it?
In the beginning, I would write when something happened. That wouldn’t have kept me on pace with my recording. I had to learn how to craft songs. The most important part of the process for me is creating emotions that drive inspiration. I liken it to an actor fleshing out a scene. You have to understand the “point” or the “truth” of the scene/song and try to react as the character would. There are many ways to react to any situation, but I look for the one that speaks to me and that I think most anyone could relate to.

What venues in the Houston area helped you get your career off the ground?
I was suffering the “nobody in this joint is here to hear music” syndrome until I met Shake Russell at a music store in Bellaire. I asked him how one went about getting to “open” for him and he have me his tour manager’s number and said I could open for him that Wednesday night. He went on to introduce me into every great place to play in the Houston area including Rockefeller’s, Fitzgerald’s and a couple of dozen other places whose names escape me at the moment. We became good friends and wrote several songs together, including some of my hits.

Are you still in touch regularly with any of the other musicians you used to play with back then?
Half of the band I share the stage with today were there when I put the band together for my RCA showcase. Other than that, I was mostly a solo act. I have stayed in touch with Shake.

The only time I’ve ever seen you perform live was at the Houston rodeo, and you played “Josie.” How did you get into Steely Dan?
I grew up listening to country and classic rock. It’s always been with me and I used to bang around the drums in my garage. For a long time, I would only jam with my band at sound check and then one night at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, I threw “Josie” into the encore and it stuck. I’m not doing any drumming in the show now, but I may again one day.

Are you a fan of jazz at all – pre-fusion, a la Miles Davis/Coltrane/Mingus/etc.?
I do love jazz. I have a lot of it in my collection; Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker…Louis Armstrong. I’m still trying to understand it! HA 

I’m curious how you think the younger generations of musicians and executives in Nashville regard musicians of your generation, especially one with your kind of accomplishments. Is it frustrating to you to see the industry so focused on artists in their teens and early twenties?
I try to see it as a business. They can run their companies any way they see fit. I do think our music culture has been harmed by their inability to see the Internet for what it was becoming. I tried to no avail to get RCA interested in the Internet back in 1997. They refused to pay any attention to it, and control of their product got away from them. Fortunately, we can find great music without their help. There was a time, when they and only they held the key to music distribution and artists would just disappear from the scene and never record again. That’s all changed.

Do you expect it will be ten more years before your next new album?
I doubt I’d wait that long again. I was just giving the courtships of the labels their due. I believed the labels when they said they really wanted me to join them. Turns out, they wanted my voice and my face. They wanted to “find songs” for me and “have them produced." It’s as if they didn’t know me. Once I rejected the three we were talking to, I joined an independent label and found myself with a deadline! I don’t feel the urge to produce anything at the moment — this close to delivering the “baby” — but I know the itch will come before long and I’ll be back at it again.

Clint Black performs at 8 p.m. tonight at Stafford Centre, 10505 Cash Road in Stafford.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray