On a current episode of the PBS performance series “Front and Center,” Clint Black shows how little has changed with his music. As he sails through “A Better Man” and “Nothin’ but the Taillights,” singles bookending a decade-long string of hits that made him one of the most popular country artists of the 1990s, Black reveals how his vocals, his love of traditional inspirations and his obviously amiable stage demeanor have in no way diminished through the passing decades.
The times may have changed in Nashville since his commercial heyday, but little has shifted within the golden stride of Black’s music.
“It’s very different,” Black said of the current country climate. “Not for me, as I just do things the way I do them without following trends. But the trends may be shifting with a new generation coming along who prefers a more country sound. You never know, though.
“I feel I’m a better artist and performer today than when I set out all those years ago. I’ve learned and soaked up everything I can from producers, engineers and fellow musicians and put every effort into improving on my skills. It’s rewarding to look back on all the work and see how far I’ve come.”
Black burst onto the country charts with little warning in 1989. His first four singles, all from a debut album called “Killin’ Time,” hit No. 1. By the spring of 1993, Black was headlining Rupp Arena with the newly solo Wynonna Judd — a trek cleverly billed as the Black and Wy Tour. Their May concert coincided with the release of a hit duet single, “A Bad Goodbye.”
Black approached all of this music from a largely traditional country viewpoint, exhibiting a classic croon on some songs and a fervent honky tonk spirit for other tunes. To trace the origins of his influences, you have to go back to Black’s beginnings in that most unlikely of country bases, New Jersey. Actually, the singer’s family relocated to Texas while Black was an infant. That’s where you sense the origins of his musical roots.
“Yeah, we’re a Texas/Alabama family, but my mom would spend her last trimester with her mom in Jersey. I was back in Texas before I was a year old, but I can still do the Joisey accent when I like.
“In Houston, we had the best of all worlds: country, Southern rock, blues. We also had a lot of nightclubs, so performing live helped to shape my love and appreciation for audiences. I knew what they liked to sit and listen to and I knew what got them dancing — great training ground.”
The list of formative influences that played into the development of Black’s artistic voice, though, didn’t hail exclusively from country camps. His fascination with music also went deeper than what the singers in the spotlights were parading.
“It is a long list (of influences) but there were two that would be at the very top: Merle Haggard and James Taylor,” Black said. “My dad had pointed out to me the credits on the old 45s — singer, songwriter and producer. I came to respect the songwriter artist most of all, and it drove me to work hard on my own songwriting.”
That understanding came into play during the creation of Black’s most recent album, 2015’s “On Purpose,” a recording where he wrote and produced all of the material. With a few years elapsed since the record’s release, how did he feel about wearing more than just one big hat in the music’s construction?
“I had to have a lot of time-separation from it before I knew for sure,” Black said. “I poured myself into that album, and I’m very proud of the production and the compositions. I also played almost all of the electric guitars, including much of the slide guitar — a first for me — so it was a major task.”
The current task at hand for Black is a new tour, which kicks off Wednesday at the EKU Center for the Arts. As rehearsals gathered momentum, the singer was given doctor’s orders to rest his voice when not performing. As a result, our interview was conducted by email. Keeping quiet, however, isn’t entirely in Black’s nature.
“It takes a ton of discipline to keep my mouth shut on the road,” Black said. “Just ask the band.”