Clint Black & Hayden Nicholas: Houston Duo has Country Success

Since the release of Clint Black’s album, Killin’ Time in 1989, few songwriting partners have had their music embraced as quickly or with as much enthusiasm as Black and his collaborator Hayden Nicholas. Clint’s two RCA albums, Killin’ Time and Put Yourself in My Shoes, have sold nearly four million copies and the duo has received numerous accolades.Since the release of Clint Black’s album, Killin’ Time in 1989, few songwriting partners have had their music embraced as quickly or with as much enthusiasm as Black and his collaborator Hayden Nicholas. Clint’s two RCA albums, Killin’ Time and Put Yourself in My Shoes, have sold nearly four million copies and the duo has received numerous accolades.

On the strength of the songs he’s written alone and with Hayden, Clint was American Songwriter‘s Top Country Songwriter for 1990 and was the first recipient of the Nashville Songwriters Association International’s Songwriter/Artist of the Year award.

Separately Black and Nicholas write great songs, but when they collaborate a special kind of magic happens. Together they’ve penned “Killin Time,” “A Better Man,” “Straight from the Factor,” and many others.

A native of Houston, Black’s been writing songs for fourteen years, ever since he first picked up a guitar. He began performing on the Texas club circuit, honing his singing talents and developing his skills as a writer. It was during one of those gigs that he met Nicholas, who he found to be another aspiring songwriter.

“We got together at the very beginning of 1987,” Hayden recalls. “We met at a club job. I had my little demo studio set up and he played me a couple of his songs, I think they were “Nobody’s Home” and “Nothings News” and I played him some stuff…We started spending a lot of time writing together and I started doing a lot of jobs with him, as a duo with two acoustic guitars.”

Clint and Hayden took their tunes to Bill Ham (well known for managing rockers ZZ Top.) He like the songs and the way Clint delivered them. Ham signed both of them to publishing deals and Clint to a management agreement.

Before long Black found himself on RCA Records’ roster and the first single, “A Better Man,” bulleted to number one on the charts. Both writers were understandably thrilled with the song’s success and credit it’s positive spin on the old ‘love gone bad theme’ with the song’s universal appeal.

Black said the song is an autobiographical piece chronicling a relationship he’d been involved in. “It’s about a seven-year relationship I’d walked away from a couple of times,” he confesses. “One time in particular was just as she was graduating from college and she was off on vacation in Belize. That’s the point where I wrote “Nobody’s Home.” Then she came back and we talked and we even got back together for awhile there and I could see it really wasn’t going to work out.

“That’s when Hayden had this musical idea and the words rolled off my tongue and as soon as they did we both knew this was a great idea, looking at the bright side. [The idea of] ‘I’m leaving here with something’ instead of ‘you know you left me with nothing’ or ‘I’m leaving you because I hate you.’ As soon as the words rolled of my tongue we got real excited about it. It was something Hayden could relate to even though it was my situation.”

Relating to each others’ ideas has forged a unique chemistry between the two songwriters. “I’d been writing a long time and had never successfully co-written with anybody and I think he was in the same boat,” Hayden says. “It’s worked real well. It’s a natural thing. We work good together. We’re just trying to keep the same chemistry happening.”

Sharing ideas and feelings is the foundation of collaboration. And the best art comes from expressing intensely personal emotions. When asked if it was ever hard to co-write a song when it was born out of a very private moment, Clint answers, “we’ve had a couple of examples of that. One song that’s not published yet, but is something personal to Hayden. He related it to me and that made it possible to write the song. He may have gone off and written it without me, but we’re able to share these things.

“Whenever I have a personal tragedy, minor or major, I can talk to Hayden about it. It’s like therapy. You know I can sit down with Hayden and talk about anything that’s happened in life…When you’re talking about writing songs that’s what you want to get out-that real feeling that other people have that you describe. If you don’t do that you’re missing the boat and cheating yourself.”

Clint says he feels flexibility is a crucial factor is successful collaboration. “Also you’ve got have something to offer,” he adds. “You’ve got have some skills in songcrafting and a talent for music. And I think you have to be flexible enough to where you don’t just have an idea, write it down and go ‘okay there it is.’ If you’re co-writing you have to say ‘O.K. what does this do for you? How do you feel? What do you think of this line I just came up with?’ Does it make sense to you? If it doesn’t then you’re not flexible, then you’re gonna reach a stalemate. Two people are gonna have their name on it [a song] and one of them might not want their name on it.”

Hayden agrees that flexibility and compromise are key ingredients for successful collaboration. “Most people start writing by themselves and it’s a very personal thing, almost like a musical diary. When you get used to doing it that way and move into a position where you’re working somebody where you’ve got two minds, two hearts and there’s got be give and take there to make it work.

“You can’t be quite as selfish as you can with your own songs. I think there’s a value in that I think you can get the best of both. Everybody has got their strong points from two people and try to eliminate the weak points, I think the whole thing works better.”

Both Clint and Hayden readily acknowledge that Clint’s immense success has made the past two years an incredible whirlwind of concerts, interviews, promotional appearances and all the other things that demand a “star’s” time. Hayden travels with Clint as the guitarist in his band. When asked if he wants to pursue a career as an artist himself, Hayden smiles shyly and shakes his head no.

“My main dream has always been songwriting,” he says. “And secondly I’m a guitar player. I love playing guitar. That’s something I’ve been doing all my life and I Started writing songs eleven or twelve years ago really seriously. This is a perfect avenue.

“When I first met Clint I knew he had something-the fire of really wanting this. That was absent in so many people I’d played with through the years. You’ve got to really want it. There’s a lot of sacrifices involved in being in the spotlight all the time. It’s a hard thing. I’d rather be stuck back and to be able to enjoy playing the shows. I can still go out in crowds and met people too. I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Though they are together on the road, Clint admits there’s not much time to write. “When we had time,” Clint says recalling the days before his multi-platinum success, “we would get together for a day or two and come up with different ideas then we’d go away for a week and take about five ideas and have them laid out. Then we’d work on one song till we got stumped then we’d take a break and come back and work on the next one and run all the way through them which was great because you’d be working on this song and suddenly something would manifest itself for this other song over here. Now it’s at the point where somebody else has to lay out that time and say ‘this is their writing time.'”

They admit they occasionally sneak off to get in some and devote time to their songwriting. “We’ll have somebody who has a beach house or a lake house and we’ll just get away for three or four days,” Hayden says playfully. “That’s the way we like to do it. We kid of mix it with a little pleasure where when you get stumped, rather than sit there beating your head, you get up and go fish or swim or whatever you want to do and talk about it and come back to it.”

When asked what quality separates a good song from a great song, Clint replied, “The great songs are the ones you anticipate the lyrics before they get there. You know what they’re gonna say. You hear the song once or twice and you can’t get the melody out of your head.”

“A great song is one when you’ve written it, you know it just like that, “Hayden says. “It’s usually those that come real fast. “The ones that you work on real long, over a period of months, and you change this and that, you might end up with a great song or a good song, but it’s never the same feeling as that magic that sometimes you write a song in thirty minutes. You laugh because it’s just so right. It doesn’t need to be changed. Those are very rare unfortunately.”

Clint and Hayden know there are many aspiring collaborators out there who would love to change places with them and for those still struggling to have their songs cut, they offer sound advice.

“The key to it is a publisher,” Clint states. “But you have to find a publisher who is really excited about your music and someone with a track record. There’s dozens of them in Nashville. If they’re gonna take your catalog and they like some of it and they want you to become a staff writer then that’s great.”

Black says if a writer isn’t sure about a publisher’s commitment to his songs, it’s best to just give them a few songs and see what they do with them. “License the songs to them for a period of time, not indefinitely, give them a year to do something with them. If they believe in your songs they’ll get behind them and they’ll you what they can do.”

Hayden advises new writers not to let criticism destroy their creativity. “Try not to take it personally,” he says of the constructive criticism. “I’ve seen a lot of people who had good songs and they go and people ‘this is not good’ and they take it a little too personally. Don’t listen to what people say exactly, but what they say collectively…Songwriting is a personal thing. Once you’ve written a song it’s almost like on your kids and when somebody puts the song down it’s almost like putting you down. The main advice I have is stick with it. Don’t get discouraged. Realize everybody has an opinion.”

Clint Black and Hayden Nicholas obviously have a successful songwriting partnership that is fueling Clint’s career by providing country fans with songs they can identify with. They’ve worked hard to reach this level and are enjoying their success. “Lots of money. That’s our source of gratification,” Clint says with a laugh. Then he turn serious, leans across the table in his Texas hotel room and says, “There’s nothing like looking at each other and saying ‘well we can’t do anymore with that, that’s a song.’
“That’s addicting. It’s just like an audience. Its just like going out and doing a show for 10,000 people and saying ‘boy let’s do that again tomorrow.’ No matter how many shows we do we still want to be up there. And no matter how many songs we write, we’re still going to be writing. They’ll be around forever. It’s addicting. We won’t walk away from that.”