Michael Ray Interviews Clint Black for American Songwriter

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In early November, legendary singer-songwriter Clint Black released This Old House as a way to pay homage to the Grand Ole Opry — which he joined in 1991.

American Songwriter had the unique opportunity to have Michael Ray sit down and interview Clint Black.

Here is how that conversation went:

Ray: I was honored to join you on this Still Killin’ Time album celebrating 30 years of such an iconic album. I thought it would be fitting here at the Opry since it’s such an inspirational place and the ties with the Grand Ole Opry (to the album). I want to start by asking you…

Black: You’re not a real interviewer.

(Ray & Black laughing)

Ray: Obviously. Let’s start with the idea about what came about, and when did you start the process of the record, the concept and the collaborations?

Black: It’s a funny thing. I was decidedly never going to release a live album. I had been asked about it before – fans had tweeted me about it. I actually record every night. With Pro Tools, we can record every night, and it opened my mind to it. And then, as we started thinking about ways to celebrate the 30th anniversary, I started to think, it’s either now or why do it? I thought of it as a snapshot of me as a performer. 

And then the usual stuff of what songs to do. I had been looking through old notebooks and looking through old demos when I was starting to work on my studio album for next year, and there were two songs that predated Killin’ Time. Both of which were in a stack of songs. You know, we could only record 10 back then on an album. 

Ray: Yeah, and you wrote hundreds.

Black: Yeah, a lot of songs. As my style evolved, they never fit in. They just didn’t feel as though they fit for me at the time. When I started putting this idea together, I asked my manager, “Would it be weird to have two studio songs on a live album?” Of course, he called me all sorts of names (laughing). No, he didn’t think it would be weird. I always try to find anyone who doesn’t like the idea to make sure that nobody is just doing something because I like it. Nobody thought it was a bad idea, and some even liked or loved the idea. Since both songs were literally in the stack written for Killin’ Time, it made sense to have both studio and live songs on it. So that’s kind of how I arrived at it and became okay with it. And as soon as I became okay with it ,“This Old House” could become an homage to the Grand Ole Opry. 

Black: You grew up and stayed in the same house your whole life, didn’t you?

Photo Credit: Josh Gicker.

Ray: Yeah, for me, “This Old House” is my great-grandmother’s little yellow two-bedroom house, where we felt was the place to have every family gathering of all 80 people. It was where I learned to play guitar. My grandfather would sit outside, and we would all pick and sing. It was on the only two-lane road to Daytona. So when I heard this song, it brought me right back there, to people pulling off the road listening to us play guitar – my grandpa had a whole PA system. When I heard this song for the first time, I wanted to send it to my dad because it paints such a perfect picture of that house. It took me back there immediately. 

Black: Hayden was the same way. We wrote [“This Old House”] in the home he grew up in. He said something about “this old house,” you know, blah blah blah. And that’s when we looked at each other and thought, “That’s a song.” So we really wrote it from that perspective because I moved around as a kid. Then attaching it to the Grand Ole Opry gave it this whole new life in my mind that I could relate to. 

Ray: With all the songs you’ve written, what about “This Old House” and “No One Here for Me” made you know these were the two to include?

Black: They are the only two songs from that stack that I hadn’t already recorded. “No One Here for Me” actually predated meeting Hayden. I usually wrote songs because something happened and a song came out of it. When I got my break, I realized I had to up the pace. I had seen an interview with Reba and she talked about listening to a thousand songs just to find 10 for an album, and that sounded really hard.

Ray: (laughing) Yeah, who’s got that kind of time?

Black: I knew I needed to start writing. I made a trip to Atlanta and had to check my guitar which was a drag, so I started writing “No One Here for Me” on the plane. 

Ray: That’s amazing. You never know when it’s going to hit you – you gotta have a pen and paper ready. Collaborations are obviously nothing new and now-a-days, it seems to be more and more. I know how I got involved, but how did you end up getting with the other artists? I am sure so many artists would have jumped at the opportunity, so how did you go about picking the artists that you thought would be the best fit for this?

Black: It was really hard. You start out with a bigger list than you will need. I didn’t know how many people would say yes. So you start reaching out, and I was surprised by how many yes’s I got back. Then I started thinking “Wait, wait, wait. Let’s hold off on asking everyone else because we are going to dice this song up so much.” You know, it can have too many changes within the song. I had just met you at the St. Jude thing in Memphis, so I thought of you immediately.

Ray: I think that’s the fastest email I have ever replied to. I just saw Clint Black wants you. I was like, “Yep, I don’t know what it is, but I am in.”

Black: You know everybody else – some were friends. Steve Wariner and I have been pals for a long time. Trace [Adkins], [Travis] Tritt and I have worked together several times. For the most part, the topside of my list gave me a yes. It was thrilling, then it became scary because I have produced a couple of people, but not a lot. Most people were well established and had worked with a lot of producers. Suddenly, you’re producing them on the mic. You got to be respectful, but you need to keep your standards. You’ve got to keep the direction you want. How do you do that with some of these artists that have been doing it longer than I have? It was thrillingly frightening. 

Ray: You’re great at it. You play multiple instruments, phenomenal songwriter, phenomenal artist, an artist that has inspired so many people to pick up a guitar from their small town and take the leap and move to Nashville. With everything you have done in your career, is there anything left on your bucket list that you want to check off?

Black: Oh yeah. Some of it I don’t want to say because I do believe in jinxing. Or, some of them are pipedreams so you don’t tell anyone because you don’t want to open yourself up to ridicule. Look, you’re not going to direct Clint Eastwood in a movie ever. Bu there are those times you think, “I have been lucky to do things that I would never have dreamed of.” So it’s good to dream big.

Ray: Absolutely.

Black: There are a couple things that I would really like to push up the hill in terms of projects. There’s a chance I might be able to develop my Broadway musical, “Looking for Christmas” into a touring play. These are things that are like ‘don’t quit your day job.’ So, I try to manage the expectations. I still dream about doing these things, but they probably move along more slowly because I do have a good day job. 

Ray: You do have a great day job. What was the difference for you going from writing country albums to making Christmas songs on Broadway? Did you have to use any other techniques that you didn’t use? What was the process? 

Black: It began with RCA doing a compilation Christmas album. Each artist on the label contributed a song, so Hayden and I wrote with Shake Russel, a buddy in Texas. We wrote “Milk and Cookies Until Santa’s Gone.” Later, when we renegotiated a contract for more albums, they wanted a Christmas album. I couldn’t bring myself to do the standards because I’m a songwriter and, you have to do the work. So over one summer, I wrote the rest of the songs on that first Christmas album. That was an education. I approached it like a history student and really tried to understand, archaeologically, what we know, and then from a place of faith, what we believe.

Learning about some of the traditions was an odyssey for me. Why do we have a tree in our house? Where did that come from? I learned all these things and their origins, and so that made Christmas a richer experience for me. That was a great byproduct. 

I had always thought about making a play or a movie out of the album. I met some producers and started working on it. But before that could happen, I was hired to write some songs for a play set in Australia that was for American audiences. So, I had a producer giving me scenes and telling me what part of the scene I had to fill in musically. It was a learning experience. I’m not just telling some story I’m making up or something I know about, but I am trying to tell his story using Australian slang that Americans will understand. So that was good practice. By the time I got to my play, I had a process for doing that. It was hard just to satisfy myself, but then I had to set it on the table and talk about it with the producers and the director for feedback. What I’m used to doing is, “I am really happy and I’m going to do this,” but this was, “I am really happy, but I have to show this to the others and see if they love it.” (laughs)

Ray: Yeah, there are more people involved. 

Black: It’s good training though. Collaborating just drives me to work harder and be more humble. It forces that on you.

Ray: Earlier, when you said,  “You have to do the work.” That really resonated with me. No matter what you are doing in this business, you have to put in the work.

Black: I believe that anything is attainable if you put in the hours. I try to tell my daughter, you can build this life and do all this. All it takes is a lot of work and some luck.

Ray: Would you take ‘em back to 1987? You meet Hayden at a gig. You’re doing all these jobs: bay cutter, you were a fishing guide, and you meet Hayden [Nicholas]. You meet the person that works. Then you write “Nobody’s Home,” which is one of my favorite written country songs of all time. Then, you get a record deal. 

When you met Hayden did it just click and you knew he was your guy? He became your band leader, your guitar player. For all the songwriters out here grinding and looking, what was that year? Did you know the magnitude of those songs? Take me to that time.

Black: We knew, but we really only thought (laughs). 

I wanted a gig at this country club as a soloist because it paid really well — better than the clubs I was playing. The guy that was gonna hire me said, “But you have to play this banquet and you need a band.” I didn’t have a band so I found one band in a bar, and the girl playing on lead guitar was pretty much Cyndi Lauper, but she knew all the country songs. So, I thought it would work. But she quit the band right before a rehearsal, and Hayden had just come back to town. So when she dropped out, he showed up for this one off. We are doing this little acoustic rehearsal and he’s playing guitar better than anyone I had known. 

Ray: He’s phenomenal.

Black: I told him I had been trying to get some demos made, but I couldn’t afford it. He said, “Well I have an 8-track in my garage, and I can do it for 150 bucks a song. 300 if you get a deal.” (laughs)

So the first song we recorded was “Nobody’s Home.” I had actually already written it, and I had given it to this publisher trying to find a manager. The publisher was up here pitching it in Nashville and didn’t tell me. He wanted to buy the song from me for exactly how much I needed to keep my car from being repossessed. That was the state I was in.

Ray: At the time, that’s a hard juggle. 

Photo Credit: Josh Gicker.

Black: Well, I believed that song was my entry into the business, so that was the first demo we made in Hayden’s garage. Within weeks of making that first demo with Hayden, I had a big-time manager interested, worked out the record deal and came to Nashville. I met with two producers, one of which was Stroud and two record companies, one of which was RCA. Stroud wanted to produce and RCA wanted to sign me, and the other two passed. Stroud used to really rib that other producer. He would get a gold album and call him up. 

I knew my break had come, and I believed these songs were good enough. You know it instinctively, but I couldn’t have imagined that they would be as big as they were out of the box. It was that life changing thing where I knew I crossed a line. It would never be the same walking into those bars again. I was a different person to other people after that.

Ray: I mean you have five number ones off a debut album, the first artist to do that in any genre off a debut album. “Better Man” was a number one song in 1989 and “Nothing’s News” in 1990. So you bring “Nobody’s Home” to Hayden…

Black: “Nobody’s Home” and “Nothing’s News” I had already written, so those were the first demos. One night, I was at my desk and I wrote the chorus to “Straight From the Factory.” The next day, we were taking a break from demo-ing, and Hayden says I write songs too. I said, “Oh, really?” He said, “I was working on this little idea.” I said, “Play that again,” and when he did, I sang those lyrics for “Straight From the Factory.”

Ray: No, way. It was right there?

Black: Yeah, I said play that again, and that was how that song went from there on. We wrote the rest of it together, and then we just made it a point to keep writing as many as we could. One day Hayden and I were driving to a $50 gig. I had already signed with RCA, and the record was in pre-production. It seemed like it was taking forever for the great things to happen. We were talking about how long it was taking to get things going. I said, “I hope it gets going soon because this killin’ time is killin’ me.” We looked over at each other and we said that’s the song. So we wrote that song except for the last line of the chorus – we couldn’t figure it out. A month had gone by and we were still trying to figure it out. It came to me and I didn’t want to say it; I was so happy and I knew he was gonna like it. It was, “I just might find I’ll be killin’ time for eternity.”

We were like “Ah, its done!” The song was finished. We demoed that and gave it to my manager, and he passed it onto the record company. They were like that has got to go on the album.

Ray: I’ve read the album was pretty much done at that point.

Black: I think it was pretty well done. “Straight from the Factory” was going to be the first single. We were singing the song at radio stations for program directors in big cities. Bob Garret said, “You know, if you can get that into the Top 20, I can add that.” I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, we need you to add that we can get into the top 20.” (laughs) 

I had the tape in my pocket with “Better Man,” “Nothing’s News” and “Winding Down.” I remember thinking, “I am going to take a chance.” I played “Better Man” for Bob. By the end of the chorus, he said, “I would add that out of the box.” We called the label and “Better Man” was the single. 

Ray: It’s all about taking chances in this business – sometimes taking time. In Nashville, it feels as though you have to write a song a day, and you have to finish it by 3:00 so everybody can go. You sat on “Killin’ Time” for a month or longer to make sure it was perfect. That’s so important for songwriters like myself to know. If you believe in a song, then take the time it deserves. It could take two months, it could take six months. We are celebrating “Killin’ Time” 30 years later because you took the extra time to find the line that made it what it is today. 

Black: Even if the song is finished, I am staring at that thing for days. The songs really do need that period of germination in order to find that better thing. If I’m thinking, “This works, but it’s not great,” after living with it, I realize “If I don’t think it’s great, how do I expect anyone else to think it’s great?” There’s just no way “Killin’ Time” was going to go without the last line.

Ray: Well, it was the song on the album that inspired me. It was the song on the album that I grew up listening to all the time. Thanks for your time and thank you for letting me be a part of this album.

Black: Thank you.

Ray: I got a new record coming out next year, so maybe we will take a few months and write a song. 

Black: Yeah, a few months. How about one?

(Ray & Black laugh)

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