Ten years have passed since Clint Black released Drinkin' Songs and Other Logic. In that time, backwards ball caps have replaced the cowboy headgear that Black, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and their peers preferred when they galloped onto the charts as country music's fabled "Class of 1989."
Absences this long can seem inexplicable if not alarming to longtime fans. From their perspective, Black's return with his latest album, On Purpose, is a welcome surprise but also a cause of some apprehension. Will he be able to reclaim his space in music's much-changed terrain? How will his music resonate today?
"I saw this email from a publisher," Black recalls. "At the bottom, where the signature was, it said something like 'shaping the sound of country music.' That stood out to me because I'd always thought the artists were shaping the sound of country music. I always shaped my music. To RCA's [Black's first record label] credit, they released my albums the way I made them.
"But I think that the country music culture is being shaped by a new generation of label heads on Music Row," he elaborates. "I was in a studio when someone got a call from one of the other labels. The head of the label would call the producer and say, 'This sound isn't working. We want it to be more like this. We want it to be more like that.' He wouldn't even talk to the artist! That kind of schooled me on how it normally goes now."
Nobody butted in on Black as he was cutting On Purpose — and it shows. The sound harks back to the stone-country feel he championed as a leader of the neo-traditional movement with Brooks, Jackson, George Strait and Randy Travis. Guitars twang rather than shred. Even the upbeat songs are laid-back. Melodies stand out, tailor-made for Black's down-home, often emotional expression. And rap interludes? Forget about it.
"We all used to joke that it won't be long before people will rapping in country music — and then it actually happened," Black says. "We had those huge, string-and-chorus-laden sounds in the Sixties, the Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins stuff. Now country music is much more aggressive. It's brought a lot of fans to country music, but it's also pushed a lot of fans out."
The lyrics, more than the music, point to what Black has been doing since 2005 — namely, living and learning. "Time for That" reminds workaholics that they might be "on track for a heart attack." This decidedly grownup message recurs in "Better and Worse," which advises listeners to not "push too hard, lean too far, thinking I can have it all." [Watch Black sing the clever tune for a special Country Now performance, filmed at Nashville's Blackbird Studios, above.]
Walter Cronkite nostalgists will agree with Black's complaint on "Still Calling It News" that media blowhards' "focus on the pointless is blurring my view." And it's hard to imagine any country bro eulogizing his favorite semi-adult beverage as an "international language" much less rhyming "Shanghai, China, North Carolina, Philippines, New Orleans." But that's what Black does on "Beer."
Even his love songs give the past and present equal importance. "One Way to Live" addresses both the intensity of his feelings in the moment and the foibles from which his love has rescued him. ("I look back and laugh sometimes at who I used to be, stumbling around, lost in the world, until you found me.")
The title alone of "You Still Get to Me" makes the same point. "As we've grown closer and closer together, we become more attracted to each other because we have not just the physical attraction but the shared life," Black says of his wife and duet partner on that track, Lisa Hartman Black. "I know the person behind her voice. I know the person behind her eyes. I love her more each day. It's something special to say 'you still get to me.' I hope we can all say it as we get older."
Black acknowledges that "a lot of this stuff I would have written differently 10 years ago. If you've lived through your thirties and forties, you learn things about yourself and mortality. I'm really big on gaining wisdom and knowledge. One year after I dropped out of high school, I realized my mistake and started right then trying to make up for it. I'm lucky because now I have further down to reach into the well of inspiration.
"Not to compare myself to Solomon," Black concludes, with his familiar wry grin. "But I used to wonder why he wrote what he did. Now I know it's because he wanted to get wisdom to the young as much as he could so they could benefit from it sooner."