A few years ago, G.A. Black of Katy, Tex., told his youngest son, Clint, that he ought to forget about writing country songs and just concentrate on singing other people's stuff.
In a backhanded way, this fatherly advice turned out to be extremely effective. It helped spur Clint Black to become what he is today: by far the hottest rookie singer/songwriter in country music.
A construction crane operator and "true country music fanatic," as his son puts it, G.A. figured that real country songwriters need a substantial fund of life experience to draw upon. Serve prison time like Haggard. Battle the bottle like Jones. Walk that hard line, like Cash. Then you can tell the world about it in a song.
"I was 24 at the time," Black, now 28, recalled in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Rochester, N.Y. (he opens for Alabama at Irvine Meadows on Sunday, July 15). "He (his father) said, 'You really haven't done enough living--shooting pool, drinking beer and getting in fights.' That's what he believed, and he discouraged me. 'Go look for (other writers') songs--or go get drunk and get in fights.' "
Instead, the younger Black got ornery. "I went home, and in 20 minutes I wrote 'Nothing's News' to show my dad that proverb was true: You don't have to stick your hand in the fire to know how it feels."
The song, about an ennui-stricken protagonist who pines for beer-drinking, barroom-brawling days gone by, eventually wound up on Black's 1989 debut album, "Killin' Time," along with nine other songs Black either wrote himself or co-wrote with his guitarist, Hayden Nicholas.
Today, "Killin' Time" has sold more than a million copies, spent an aggregate of 21 weeks at the top of the Billboard country albums chart (where it remained last week) and produced four No. 1 singles. Now, in a bid for a fifth, "Nothing's News" has also been released as a single. Thanks for the advice, Pop.
In fact, Black said, firsthand experience--his difficult decision in 1987 to end a seven-year love relationship--did give rise to three of the songs on "Killin' Time."
"I'd fallen out of love and decided we should call it quits," Black recalled in his easygoing, deep and mellow Texas twang. "Then I started having regrets. Maybe I'd made a mistake."
Unable to reach his ex to patch things up, Black called his dad for emotional support. This time G.A., sticking to his true-experience-makes-good-songs theory, offered another bit of fatherly advice.
"My dad told me to take advantage of it and write 'a good Joneser.' " Black did just that, writing "Nobody's Home," a slow heartbreak ballad in the George Jones tradition. It turned into a No. 1 hit.
Black did get back together with his longtime girlfriend, but the relationship succumbed for good six months later. The artistic issue of Black's second parting with the woman was "A Better Man," a noteworthy song in which the usual post-breakup bitterness and woe are replaced by a sense of warmth and thankfulness toward his former partner.
I know I'm leavin' here a better
For knowin' you this way.
Things I couldn't do before, now I
think I can
And I'm leavin' here a better man.
"Most of the time in country music, we focus on the dejection and the heartbreaks," Black said. "I said, 'Let's look at the positive side of this thing.' "
With a top-selling album and a sweep last April of four Academy of Country Music awards (best album, best single ("A Better Man"), best male vocalist and best new male vocalist), Black clearly has arrived as a peer of George Strait and Randy Travis in the running for most popular figure in country's young traditionalist movement.
Strait and Travis write very little of their own material, though. Country's greatest performers have been songwriters too. With his pithy, incisive way with a lyric and his strong melodic sense, Black is one of the few young country contenders who promises to carry on the Haggard-Jones-Owens tradition in all its dimensions.
Black has also shown signs of an adventurous streak that could let him stretch beyond the usual bounds of what strict traditionalism allows. One album track, "Live and Learn," is a New Orleans-style blues with an oompah beat and a philosophical bent. In concert, Black said, he covers the Fats Waller jazz-based standard "Ain't Misbehavin.' "
For his next album he has written a song with a similar feel, "almost a big-band blues."
With a music fanatic for a father, Black grew up steeped in country tradition. "He was always bringing records home," the singer recalled. "He'd stop off on the way home from work and get a 45 and say 'Listen to this, you oughta sing this song.'
"The radio was always tuned to country--I heard everything. My friends and brothers were into rock 'n' roll too, so I heard that as well."
Black began playing the harmonica at 13. Then he moved on to playing the guitar and singing. "When I learned three or four songs, I ran around the neighborhood and would play 'em over and over for anyone and everyone.