Even at the height of his hit-making days, Clint Black always seemed like a man of the past. So maybe it's only natural that he's now reached the point where his future feels entirely uncertain.
Black arrived during Nashville's mid-to-late-'80s neo-traditional trend. He went on to enjoy a decade of chart success before stepping away just as file-sharing brought the industry to its knees. Now Black's sitting on five albums of material wondering what to do next.
"The music business hasn't figured its own self out, so I'm reluctant to put my career back in record company executives' hands," says Black, whose only releases since leaving RCA 15 years ago were two mid-aughts albums for his own, now-defunct Equity Music Group, and a recent retrospective sold through chain restaurants. At this point, Black doesn't like his options, so he waits.
"The major records companies have this same idea about me as RCA did — we like you but we want to give you songs to record, instead of you writing them," he says. "So I walked away. I talked to a few independent record labels, but the deal structure felt too much like a major label deal."
It's always vexed Black that, despite his success with his own material, RCA would try to get him to cover other artists.
"They wanted me to record other songs without even hearing the songs I had," he chuckles. "It was an odd but very successful relationship. It seemed to be tenuous for no good reason at all. But we had 10 years of 20 million in record sales ... so I never really understood the oddness of it all."
The hard way out
Black's devotion to music dates back to playing in his two older brothers' band as a teen. When his brothers went off to pursue normal work-a-day lives, Black continued to play in bars and clubs for nearly a decade, before landing a record deal for his triple-platinum 1989 debut, Killin' Time.
It was a fortuitous time to be a traditional country songwriter inspired by the likes of Waylon, Willie and Merle. With his dusty baritone and honky-tonk spirit, Black was a natural amidst a backwards-looking Nashville set led by Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and Reba McEntire. His first two albums went to No. 1 and sold 4 million copies, but his momentum was sidetracked by the time he released 1992's The Hard Way.
Black had parted ways with his management prior to that third album. Not only did his manager sue him, but RCA did as well, an oddity even by record biz standards. Meanwhile, his momentum had begun to slow. Hard Way and its 1993 follow-up, No Time to Kill, would top out at No. 2, and three subsequent '90s releases would barely crack the Top 10.
"It was frustrating and it was confusing. I didn't understand why my record company had anything to say about what manager I had," says Black, who subsequently discovered what may well have been the motivating factor. "An odd thing happened after that, which was that my then-manager was representing ZZ Top, who moved over to RCA for a huge contract."
After 1999's unplugged album D'lectrified, Black put music on the back burner to spend time with his young family. When he returned to music it was as the head of his own label, Equity Music Group. They helped launch Little Big Town and Kevin Fowler, but ultimately went under in December 2008.
"There was a bunch of stuff that I can't even go into that led to the collapse of the partnerships in that company," says Black bitterly. "It was funded properly and it sold a lot of records. Yet somehow, mysteriously it wasn't able to stay afloat."
Deal with the Donald
In the years since releasing his 2004 rock crossover Spend My Time and 2005's honky-tonk flavored Drinkin' Songs & Other Logic, Black has flown under the radar, although he did appear in the second season of Celebrity Apprentice. He'd never actually watched the Donald Trump-helmed reality show before agreeing to appear alongside a motley crew of celebrities like Joan Rivers, Andrew Dice Clay, Dennis Rodman and Khloé Kardashian.
"There are some really great people on there who I would work with in a minute," says Black. "And there are some people on there who are better off heading to North Korea. It really was a rollercoaster of emotions."
Black survived for 11 shows, which meant 51/2 weeks of 18-hour days. It was a regime designed to bring out the worst in people.
"I never really knew: Are they just being this way because the cameras are on, because of the contest of it? Or is that how they really are? And the producers told me, that's how they really are," Black recalls. "The sleep debt gets to be so great, they said, once you get into this thing, you're being yourself."
Despite his disillusionment, Black isn't giving up. Last year's When I Said I Do consisted of 11 prior hits plus three new songs and was only available at Cracker Barrel restaurants or from the chain's website.
Yet now, with a backlog of more than 50 songs he's excited about, it's becoming difficult for Black to hold back.
"It itches a bit," he admits, "but I'm also about quality and I'm not greedy. I've never been about the money. So for me, it's really about doing the right thing."