Exploring Clint Black’s decade-long studio album drought

Resplendently dressed from head to toe in black, Clint Black strikes a chord on a Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion III electric guitar circa 2013. Image Credit: Equip Board

Recording artist Clint Black is doing what he loves best — playing traditional country music with a contemporary edge to fans all over America.

In the three decades since the veteran troubadour’s debut album, Killin’ Time, stormed radio on the strength of “A Better Man”, Black has had 13 songs hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Country charts, with a further 20 singles climbing into the Top 20. Twelve studio albums and 20 million records and counting sold worldwide would be impressive figures for any artist.

Surprisingly, his recording output during the late aughts and early 2010s was overwhelmingly erratic. The critically-acclaimed Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, unleashed in October 2005, was Black’s last album of all-new material until On Purpose exactly 10 years later. The Love Songs, featuring intimate, albeit pop arrangements of Black’s romantic ballads, hit store shelves in 2007, but those were strictly re-recordings.

The Long Cool digital EP was released in March 2008 and contained Black’s final two charting songs as of this writing, “The Strong One” and his rockin’ cover of “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” a prime nugget from the vastly underrated catalog of the British Invasion harmony-laden outfit the Hollies.

Unfortunately, when Equity Music Group, a record label founded by Black, declared bankruptcy around Christmas of 2008, the extended play record was inexplicably removed from all digital outlets. While an admirable concept, starting a record label at the dawn of the 21st century was probably doomed from the get-go.

Stray songs have cropped up unobtrusively in the interim: “A Beautiful Day,” available on the Flicka 2 soundtrack, digital only single “A Better Life,” and “She Won’t Let Go,” written for the Until They Are Home documentary.

On the television front, Black’s appearance on the second season of President Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice in 2009 got him significant publicity. It would have been the perfect opportunity to release a new studio or live album to capitalize on the new-found attention. But such a release never materialized. It is very possible that fans of a certain age only know Black from his brush with reality television. Whether that bodes well for his musical legacy remains to be seen.

Resembling Roy “King of the Cowboys” Rogers more and more with each passing day, Black’s talk show guest spots have also been rather sporadic and generally relegated to Fox News. His wife, gorgeous actress-singer Lisa Hartman, boosts his profile considerably when she agrees to joint interviews. Black has furthered his acting resume with Flicka 2 and Flicka: Country Pride, but those were strictly direct-to-video releases.

A Broadway-style venture suitable for theaters known as Aussie Adventure, built around an equestrian theme with bona fide Australian dialect, commanded Black’s writing muse for a time, although the production has stalled.

Black was cognizant of his recording inactivity, as numerous interviews and social media posts, including a cryptic Aug. 23, 2012 Facebook message confirming that “I’m going to have new music out very soon, depending on your own personal scale of time” corroborate [Author’s Note: Black occasionally posts on Twitter but interacts more and has been known to respond directly to fans on Facebook].

It would be three years before his promise came true with On Purpose. Perhaps the long lapse in albums of original material had to do with the artist temporarily losing his songwriting muse. Or maybe he is a meticulous craftsman in the studio, as evidenced by the five-year wait between D’lectrified and Spend My Time.

Black’s four-year long lawsuit against his former business manager, Charles Sussman, settled in the Tennessee Court of Appeals in August 2012, is the likeliest scenario. The black Stetson lovin’ cowboy contended that Sussman improperly managed his career, encouraged him to invest millions into his fledgling record label, and failed to report that Little Big Town, who became a household name after they signed to Equity, had not signed a contract in over 12 months, among other improprieties. Incidentally, the singer took first manager Bill Ham to court 20 years earlier over publishing royalties.

Whatever the reason(s) may be, devoted fans desperately waited a decade for a new Clint Black album. Rumors of possible contenders for On Purpose ran rampant, including the already released tracks from the Long Cool EP.

Another rumored contender was “Can’t Quit Thinkin’”, first played during 2007’s Up Close Tour. A departure stylistically for Black, the song is a gritty mid-tempo rock number featuring plenty of sexy slide guitar licks that has yet to appear on vinyl.

In the years leading up to the long-gestating On Purpose, Black was true to his word when he confirmed the inclusion of both “Breathing Air” and “Beer,” the latter written with Bill Anderson and Bob DiPiero and the final number recorded for On Purpose. The trio briefly toured together in the U.S. and Ireland in February 2012 as part of a special CMA Songwriter’s Series.

Clint Black is pictured with his prized Olson SJ cedar top acoustic guitar circa 2009. Photography by Stephen Azzato

Black’s spring 2014 North American tour had three songs in the setlist destined for On Purpose: “The Last Day” — a devastatingly heartfelt ballad written in the aftermath of his father’s suicide with longtime compadre Hayden Nicholas — “Better and Worse” — a light-hearted ode to the working man’s favorite pastime — and the previously mentioned “Beer.”

An exclusive one-off record deal with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in August 2013 offered a significant ray of hope that the dungeon door to Black’s unreleased song archive was slowly beginning to creak apart. When I Said I Do collected “11 hits and heartfelt favorites” along with three brand new Black compositions. The album remains a steady seller at the longtime family restaurant chain.

The wordsmith, who experienced his greatest success on RCA throughout the ’90s and actually rivaled Garth Brooks, remained unsigned to a record label until the Nashville-based Thirty Tigers snapped him up just prior to On Purpose officially dropping in September 2015 and debuting in the Billboard Country Top 20 albums chart at No. 13. Black’s talent for penning and ultimately singing a good country song is sorely welcome in today’s era of Auto-Tuned pop confetti masquerading as country music.

Wandering minstrel Clint Black idly strums an acoustic guitar outside a rundown Los Angeles motel in a still from 1997’s “Nothin’ on but the Taillights” album cover photo shoot. Photography by Timothy White
Click to watch the official music video for “When I Said I Do,” one of the most perfect wedding songs ever. Clint Black and wife Lisa Hartman duet on the cut, taken from the country star’s 1999 best-selling album, “D’lectrified.” Video Credit: Sony Music Entertainment

© Jeremy Roberts, 2012, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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