Straight from the factory with Clint Black’s guitar compadre Hayden Nicholas
“Without being too blunt about it, the consensus is that once you’re over 50, forget it, country radio is just not going to put you on their current playlist.” In an exclusive interview, Hayden Nicholas, Clint Black’s right hand man on record and on stage, judiciously rationalizes the harsh decree from modern programmers.
It is especially unfair considering that according to Billboard, Black tore up the charts with 32 Top 20 singles between 1989 and 2003. Nicholas co-wrote an astounding 21, and nine of those vaulted to number one status.
The ubiquitous “Summer’s Comin’” singer melded ’70s rock influences like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac with traditional country stalwarts such as Merle Haggard and Charley Pride. Black discovered a winning formula that shocked naysayers by yielding innumerable awards and paving the way for country’s universal appeal in the 21st century.
Coincidentally, Black dropped debut single “A Better Man” one month prior to Garth Brooks’ introductory blast, “Much Too Young [To Feel This Damn Old].” While Black had the biggest hit record, Brooks ultimately claimed the lion’s share of credit among critics for the country pop crossover phenomenon.
The multiple Academy of Country Music Award recipient’s most prolific songwriting partner by a considerable margin, Nicholas has coauthored somewhere in the neighborhood of 77 released compositions between 1989’s Killin’ Time and 2020's under-the-radar Out of Sane. It’s unclear exactly how many more have been recorded and relegated to the vaults since Black dumped RCA Victor in 2002 and founded the short-lived Equity Music Group.
The Fender Stratocaster maestro was ready, willin’, and able to journey through his back pages. Nicholas divulges the serendipitous encounter with the future Celebrity Apprentice contestant at a nondescript Sugar Land, Texas country music dive bar, which iconic British Invasion band influenced his decision to take up guitar when he was only seven years old, triple platinum debut album Killin’ Time, an admiration for Willie Nelson’s recording technique, why he prefers having an outside producer in the studio, the impetus behind Black recording an album of sublime love ballads for Cracker Barrel, and On Purpose’s closing cut “The Last Day,” a tender tear-jerker written after the unexpected passing of Black’s father.
The Hayden Nicholas Interview, Part Three
Did the Beatles influence you in any aspect?
The Beatles are the reason I started playing guitar in ’64, like most of my generation. As albums became more available my interests grew into other rock acts. By the time the Beatles broke up, I was already into groups like Led Zeppelin and Cream etc., but Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road were huge influences on me…mainly in songwriting whereas Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and others were more of an influence on my guitar playing. Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed were guitar influences, too. The Beatles influenced everyone alive in the sixties and beyond…to this very day.
How did you meet Clint Black?
I met Clint at the very beginning of 1987 during an inconsequential string of dates with a country band I was playing guitar with at the moment. I’d only been with the band for maybe a week or two. The band had a date booked at a club in Sugar Land, Texas, and they decided to split the bill with this coffee house singer.
The club owner wanted a full band to support the singer so the audience could dance. We were going to do half of our songs and half of his. We got together with this guy and did a rehearsal to see what we were going to do. Long story short…the singer was Clint.
During one of the intermissions, we kinda hit it off instantaneously. Clint talked about songwriting, and I told him I had a little studio in my garage where I’d been writing songs. He played me a song he had written a few years earlier called “Nobody’s Home.” I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a good country song’ [laughs].
I invited Clint over to my house. I played him some of the songs I’d been writing and recording, and he played me some of his, including “Nothing’s News.” I had a musical idea and he had a lyrical idea, and we sat down and wrote a Western Swing song in about 30 minutes. It actually ended up being the first cut on the Killin’ Time album — “Straight from the Factory.”
We wrote constantly together. Within a four or five month period of time we had composed about a dozen songs that we then recorded at my home studio on an eight-track half inch tape machine. We would mix the songs down to a quarter inch tape before making final cassette copies.
Basic tracks were cut first on acoustic guitars and a drum machine. Later I would overdub lead guitar and bass. We found Jeff Peterson when we decided we needed a steel guitar player. We’d buy him a six pack of beer for him to come over and play on the songs [laughs].
That stockpile became our demo tape — basically the Killin’ Time album. The actual song “Killin’ Time” was a last minute addition. I have those master cassette tapes somewhere in my belongings. We’ve always joked that one day people will probably find them [laughs].
Our music evolved naturally. For awhile we functioned as a duo performing at coffee houses but we always wanted to play our songs with a band. As we booked shows on a somewhat larger scale in the Houston area, we completed our original band lineup with Jake Willemain on bass, John Permenter on fiddle, and my longtime friend and drummer, Dick Gay.
Within two years we had both a management deal and a record deal. When Killin’ Time came out [May 2, 1989], all five singles released from the record became incredibly successful — “A Better Man,” “Nobody’s Home,” “Walkin’ Away,” “Nothing’s News,” and the title cut. It was like a roller coaster [laughs].
Is Clint going to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Killin’ Time?
I think so. The album earned its spot in history and oughta be celebrated [Author’s Note: Killin’ Time spent an astonishing 195 weeks on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, easily earning its triple platinum status with 31 of those weeks perched at No. 1. Four singles from the LP climbed to No. 1, while a fifth stalled at a still-impressive No. 3].
Would it be a crazy idea if you performed the Killin’ Time album in its entirety at one or more shows?
That’s a great idea and that’s something that we’ve thought about. We’ll see if that happens in the near future.
Who composes what?
Our songwriting is a true collaboration. I’ll have various musical ideas for songs — maybe a line or two of the verse or chorus. Eventually Clint and I get together, and we start putting the music and words together. Over the course of several days we’ll either have a few finished songs or ones close to finished. There might be a few things we need to change over the next week. That’s generally how it works with us.
Have you composed a song in the recording studio?
No. I know a lot of bands do it that way, but that never happened with us. We never booked time in a studio and jammed, hoping a song would develop. But plenty of times there will be some riff or something that will come up. I’ll hang on to that idea, since it might find its way into something later.
When you and Clint have a song written and ready to record, do you present it to the band in the studio or do you demo it first?
Back in the old days we actually demoed them in my little home studio that I had in my garage. The studio was never really a working business — just mainly for me. Anyway, we then gathered our demos and listened to them with a producer.
We would pick a song to start with and write out a chart for it before starting the recording. There was always room for experimentation. It’s a process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Nowadays, we record at Clint’s studio.
Can you write while you’re on tour?
Clint and I never really write on the road. We usually take off for three or four days and go someplace quiet. We have written somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 unreleased songs since Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic appeared in 2005.
Nevertheless, I spend much of my traveling downtime writing. A great deal of my first novel, Ezekiel’s Choice [February 2013, Westbow Press], was written on the road. I just like to keep busy, and it’s the perfect opportunity to get some things like that done.
How would you characterize Clint’s personality?
Clint is a real jokester. He’s a ball of energy — especially when I first met him. He’s very ambitious and focused. He possessed a really clear vision of what he wanted to become in the music business.
When I met him, I saw something different. He was roughly 25 years old, and he’d been playing bars and coffee houses for a good seven or eight years by then, so he had a lot of experience. Not only was he good at what he did, he had that constant drive.
Memorizing lyrics has never been an issue with Clint. He’s almost got a photographic memory. He can hear a song once on the radio, and then he can sing it [laughs]. He had a notebook when I first met him containing two or three hundred pop, rock, and country songs. I mean everything. He was a James Taylor fan, Bob Seger, the Eagles…
Clint was doing an acoustic solo show which ultimately evolved into an acoustic duo when I joined. We were doing acoustic renditions of everything. He knew hundreds of songs, and the set list varied every night based on whatever he felt like doing.
Clint grew disillusioned with the major record labels in the early 2000s and decided to release music on his own label. Why did Equity Music Group ultimately fail?
There was a lot of tension that had been building up with the then-head of RCA. It got kind of nasty. It was really disheartening to witness all the infighting. I had to make a conscious decision to not let it be discouraging.
Our debut on Equity was Spend My Time [March 2, 2004]. RCA strategically released a compilation of our past hits to piggyback on our new studio album. They did that twice in a row.
The first act signed to Equity was Little Big Town, who did quite well. It wasn’t enough to keep the label afloat because there was mismanagement going on. There’s still litigation. I don’t know a lot of the details. I try not to. I just want to keep my focus on the music. The business side of things can destroy you if you let it.
Is there much unreleased music from Clint’s classic RCA period [1989–2001]?
I’d say I could probably count our unreleased RCA material on one hand. There were always a few songs recorded for each album that didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t because that particular song didn’t hold up — it was usually just due to the fact that we had a similar-sounding song already slated for the record. So they were left by the wayside.
There was a 10-year dearth of original studio material between Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic and 2015’s On Purpose. The former record was pretty much lost in the shuffle.
You know what? You’re right. Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic was an album featuring a couple of songs that we’d written a long time ago plus some newer ones. We returned to our roots and explored that avenue a little more. It was pretty much like us going in there and doing what we did in the old days — playing live. I like a lot of the songs on it.
Would you prefer that a producer work with the band, or would you rather personally oversee an album?
I would rather have a producer simply because you have a whole other set of ears there. It’s hard to be objective after you’ve worked with a song for so long. You’ve spent months writing, rehearsing, and recording it.
You need the objectivity. You need somebody to look over the song[s] and admit, ‘Yeah, it’s great’ or ‘Maybe this isn’t so great.’ I think everyone needs that. It’s kind of like directing and starring in a movie simultaneously. It’s a lot to have on your plate.
I prefer to be produced when I’m in the studio recording — regardless of whomever I’m playing with. I like to ask, ‘Hey, do you like this?’ or ‘What do you want me to do?’ rather than me having to decide how to play it. I think a lot of musicians would have it that way.
We had most of our arrangements worked out on the early albums. The main thing we changed when we went to a professional studio was to add higher quality technology and sounds, courtesy of James Stroud. James was great. I can’t tell you how much we all learned from him. [Author’s Note: James Stroud was Black’s producer on all seven albums released between 1989 and 1997].
James called me after Killin’ Time won Album of the Year at the ACMs and remarked, “You should have received an award for that because all I really did was take what you guys had done and redid it” [laughs].
How long does it take you guys to record a song now? Is a lot of overdubbing involved?
It’s not really any different than it’s ever been. There isn’t much overdubbing involved. Let me tell you a quick story. A good friend of mine, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, owns Bismeaux Studio, located in Austin, the city where I live.
Willie Nelson always cuts his albums there. He and his band spend two or three days cutting a record, then they hit the road and promote it. Willie lets everybody else prepare the album for release. That older generation is used to doing that [laughs].
We’ll spend a little more time at it if something’s not working. Or we might invite a special guest to contribute. By the time you mix the album you’re looking at a project that really takes months.
With the 10-year gap between albums of original material that finally ended with On Purpose, we ended up with a stockpile of material.
Did you and Clint co-write any of the three new songs featured on the Cracker Barrel exclusive, When I Said I Do?
No — this was the deal. The Cracker Barrel people came to Clint and suggested an album exploring his greatest hits, anchored by a strong love theme. We re-recorded 11 songs — “Like the Rain,” “One Emotion,” “Easy for Me to Say,” and “Half the Man” were co-written by me — while Clint brought three exclusive songs to the project written with other songwriters.
When I Said I Do was a one-time deal with Cracker Barrel [released on August 5, 2013]. The restaurant chain’s label has been very successful for many artists including Clint, and the album remains a solid seller.
Have you been tempted to put out a solo album in order to showcase your stockpile of unreleased compositions?
I have no interest in pursuing a solo album. The first 10 years with Clint was akin to a whirlwind. I gradually pursued different forms of writing — dabbling in screenplays [i.e. a comedy based on a mutual friend co-written with Clint], fiction manuscripts [i.e. Hand’s Treasure] and writing my first novel, Ezekiel’s Choice, a story of a man’s spiritual redemption in the wake of a national tragedy with a touch of the supernatural thrown in.
My second novel, Rock Bottom , deals with a band and an old house where they live, with hints at the paranormal and the main character redeeming hope. He was a guitarist until he lost his arm in a motorcycle wreck and is now the band’s sound engineer. What it all boils down to is that I have a special place in my heart for telling stories.
“The Last Day” serves as the 14th and ultimate track from 2015’s On Purpose. What’s the story behind it?
“The Last Day” is a ballad basically saying, “I’m gonna live this day and everyday like it was the last day of my life.” I know it has a special place in Clint’s heart. About a week or two after we wrote “The Last Day,” his father passed away unexpectedly [December 2, 2012]. It was a very tough time for Clint, and we didn’t touch the song for awhile.
When we went in and started finishing up some of the songs slated for the Cracker Barrel record — When I Said I Do  — we recorded “The Last Day” properly. It’s real strong and full of emotion and something that everybody can relate to. Folks dealing with grief have told me how much “The Last Day” has touched them.
Does radio still support new Clint Black singles?
Without being too blunt about it, the consensus is that once you’re over 50, forget it, radio is just not going to put you on their current playlist. Programmers tell us, ‘You have a strong showing on the country classics chart, and you ought to be happy with that’ [laughs]. That’s the way radio is these days.
It reminds me when we were starting in the late ’80s and heard the same type of thing about people like George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard having trouble getting played on the radio.
Of course, you also had many great younger country acts including Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and Alabama. Chasing the demographic of youth has always been the thing since the record business has been established. Young girls are the largest audience.
There was something like over 4,000 country radio stations in the country, and ninety percent of those were individually owned — mom and pop stations. By the mid to late ’90s, companies like Clear Channel went around buying all these radio and television stations. That’s when everything changed.
You no longer had the rapport with anybody. It was all corporate. It’s happened in everything having to do with the industry — promoters, record companies, bus companies, you name it. And it’s an epidemic that’s affected most every business in America. Walmart monopolized business instead of having the little individual mom and pop hardware stores.
This is all old news now, I have to say. I feel really blessed that we were in the mainstream when we were. Should radio never play us again, we’re still out there. Clint has a great fan draw all around the country and in Canada, so we’re able to play at all these places.
Pop culture is definitely undergoing saturation overload.
You didn’t have 300 channels and there was no Internet when we started. If you appeared on Johnny Carson or the early years of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, it seemed like everybody had seen your appearance by the following day.
Nowadays you can do the gamut of New York TV shows such as Good Morning America or Live! with Kelly and even some of your close friends are unaware you were on there. There’s a ton of distractions.
It’s hard for young acts to come up. They have to approach it totally different now than in our day. At that time it was about getting a demo tape together and then nabbing a record deal. Once you had a record deal, you had to cut a hit single [laughs]. You hoped for all those things to happen. Nowadays it’s really not that way.
How do you reach fans without country radio support?
The advent of social media has created various new ways of doing things. Once you start thinking outside the box with the way the industry is now compared to what it used to be, there’s many ways to reach people.
It’s really about building and nurturing an audience, and keeping them in your corner. We’ve been really blessed to get to do what we want to do. I know I feel that way. Just to have a job that you enjoy doing. How valuable is that? I hear there’s a recent poll stating that approximately 70 percent of people in the United States hate their job. I think about how blessed I’ve been.
[Author’s Note: Don’t hesitate to visit Black’s official website for complete tour dates. Nicholas’ official Facebook is also accessible in case you wish to interact directly with the Houston songwriter, keep track of his latest activities, or watch vintage home movies and performance clips].
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