The latest album, Out of Sane, is available now.
Back in May, in the lead-up to the June release of his latest album Out of Sane, I got on the horn with country superstar Clint Black to chat about the new music and life in pandemic times. Black had already stepped up his Facebook Live game, connecting with fans through intimate chats and performances from his home studio.
Understandably saddened by the ongoing health crisis that had brought in-person live appearances to a halt, Black seemed as stoic and focused as always on the crafts of songwriting and performing. That comes through crystal-clear in the new tracks on Out of Sane, which find him as introspective about life and the pains that come with it as he was on the smash 1989 debut album that started it all, Killin’ Time.
There’s even a song on the new album — “Hell Bent” — that he says is as soulfully impactful as the title track of his first record.“I think one of the best things I’ve done since ‘Killin’ Time’ is ‘Hell Bent’.”
I’d have to agree, and I’ve studied Black’s melodic thinking-man tunes closely since ’89. After our conversation below, I felt the need to tell him of my country-fan devotion to his stuff since the beginning.
I admitted I was 12 when I bought the Killin’ Time cassette with my own allowance money. Ever the quick joker, Black followed his graciousness with a one-liner: “It’s great to know you listened. And thanks, I guess, for the royalties.”
Keep reading to hear more from the Grammy, ACM, and CMA winner.
Tell us about your life in the last few months – how have you been spending time beyond readying the release of the new album?
I'm on the edge of my seat with the rest of America. We're all anxious to go back to work and a lot of people in a long chain of those I've worked with directly and indirectly are really being affected by this. So that and the impact of this virus on families is foremost in my mind. I'm staying busy, working around the house. I've been creating kind of a little broadcast studio in my recording studio so I can do these Facebook Live events. … Been a little cagey, but at the same time I'm really focused promoting this new album and some other causes.
How have you adjusted to connecting with fans only through online portals?
It's really strange. I thrive in front of a live audience. I've had to sort of adjust my thinking, looking at the camera and knowing how many people are watching. I have to kind of shift my brain in order to understand that I am connected with them in that forum. … I think my brain is rewiring itself from it. And I love the questions [during the live sessions]. I also see the comments and I know that a lot of people want me to get on with the singing. So I feel a real tug between this wanting to see their questions and comments and talk to them.
I’ve enjoyed hearing the stories and feeling like you're hanging out with the artist at home, but you're right about the juxtaposition of that and you not seeing the faces and you not getting those responses that are so immediate in your concerts.
I'm trying to think of it like a television show that's interactive and balance it. I think that's the key balance. I love the questions about the work stuff, about the guitars, about tuning, about gear. I could walk around my studio and point to every input panel and patch bays all of that. [Laughs.] Quite excited to talk about it all.
Seeing that American flag guitar on the cover of the new album made me wonder about your own guitar collection. Do you have ‘em all over the place or do you have just ones that mean the most to you?
Well, I'm not a big collector [but] I have a large collection. A lot of them are work horses. Like my Tom Anderson electrics, those are custom made for me. … And then I have a guitar with Taylor, a signature model of my own. … I've got a James Taylor signature model, also, and I've got a couple of old Martin D-45s I bought when I got my first check from RCA … and a collector's edition Martin D-40 BLE. I think they only made 50 of those. And then I've got an old '58 Gretsch. I've got the new Steve Warner Gretsch. I've got a '66 Stratocaster. … [Jimmy] Buffet gave me a Shellback Martin, gave us all one for singing on his album.
And the flag guitar from the album cover?
I've had that since I think 2001. I had two made and one was going to be auctioned off for charity and the other I was going to keep. [I] use it in my show all the time. … I wanted to do this cover of the album with only the guitar in color accentuating the flag. Then at the last minute, Steve Warner and I wrote “America” and then it was “OK, I've got to make a video holding that guitar.”
That song would have been meaningful even if none of this year’s events happened, but now, like you've said in the lead-up to the album, it's taken on a new significance. How did you start to form this idea?
I started thinking of this idea and it'd been going through my mind for quite some time. We can get mad at our leaders. We get mad at each other. The government did something bad, they did something bad again, and so on and so forth. But the truth of it is, like Churchill said, "[democracy] is the worst form of government, except for all the others." I prize America as the best of the best that the world has seen in its history. And I know just like any parent that they're going to make mistakes. They're going to punish you sometimes when you didn't really deserve it, or maybe over-punish you, or maybe they're going to be too lenient with you sometimes. I sort of see the correlation. And so it goes through my mind: Well, do we hate our parents when they're wrong or do we just get mad at them? And so I started feeling like, what if we all really appreciated this country for what it is and not damn it for what it isn't? How much good is there versus bad? And the thought just came into my mind, 'I'm still in love with you America.' And I wrote it as first a love song and then reveal in the end of the first chorus that it's a love letter to our country.
You recorded it pretty fast after writing it, right?
[Steve Wariner and I] were about halfway through getting the structure down, and I knew this was going to go fast. … And I started texting musicians on the spot before we even finished it and scheduling the session, because I had a deadline approaching for this album to be delivered. So, four days later, five maybe, we're in the studio recording the song, got it all finished. I ran out to do a show, drove 800 miles to Kansas and woke up the day of show on my bus to a text that the show had been canceled and that was the beginning of the quarantine.
There’s also some significance to the “America” video – a soldier whose image appears. Tell me more about that?
There’s a soldier holding an American flag about two minutes in, Kyle Milliken, who was a Navy SEAL killed in action. The Kyle Milliken Foundation was started to help Kyle's family, a wife and two children. And they've since pivoted now to broaden it to Gold Star Families and anyone in the military who's having a problem. Maybe they're struggling through this COVID quarantine. … I got his photo from a friend of mine who is a Navy SEAL and was his best friend. I have a personal connection and feel one anyway through his friend, and asked him if I could have a photo of him or clip for the video. His family let me use that and now we want to honor him by [spreading the word about] him and his foundation.
I've been able to tell from your songwriting for years that you have a healthier amount of introspection than a lot of singers and songwriters out there. And it seems to be a theme on this new record. I mean, just the Out of Sane title, the different songs about getting out of your own head or warring with your own ideas of yourself. Do overarching themes come about naturally when you are making a record?
Back in the day, RCA wanted an album out of me about every 12 months, while I wanted to write. I did write all my own songs and there's no way I could do it. About every two and a half years, I gave them another album. It frustrated them, but I only have so much to say until I go out and live and experience things again and let the brain strengthen the good wires and rewire the bad ones and get to a point where now I have more to say. And so, when I write, when I wrote for this album, that's really all I was doing. You look for ideas or themes that are strong enough to inspire the elements around them.
I’ve always wondered about your most frequent writing partner through your career, Hayden Nicholas, and what the dynamic of your friendship is like. How does he help you get an idea to the finish line?
You know, Hayden and I go back now to 1987 when we first worked together and I recognized his talent. He asked what I was doing and I was trying to get some demos made without a budget. He said, "well I've got a recorder in my garage, 150 bucks a song. 300 if you get a record deal." So we started there. “Nobody's Home” was the first song we demo’ed, and we're demo’ing others, and one night on a break he said, "You know, I write too and I had this musical idea. You want to hear it?" And I said, "Yeah." So he played the musical idea. And I said, "Play it again." And I sang four lines I had written the night before, which were, “Straight from the factory/we were made for each other,” and, “one of those things that's meant to be/ straight from the factory, nothing less than exactly/you're the only lock that's made to fit my key.” That's all I had. He played that idea. And I said, "what if you go here, give me two more bars." And then we did it again. We had our chorus, and that was the first song we wrote together.
And from there, it was “Better Man” and “Killin' Time” and on and on. We just have a shorthand way of working. We both intimately know the body of work. So we know when we're trotting over old ground. And we're always thinking of what we don't have, what would be great live, because he's the lead guitar player in my band. So, he brings all of that history, brings the shorthand that we've developed together. He's a great storyteller. He's written a couple, a few novels. He’s like a brother from another mother.
Find out more about Out of Sane and the Milliken Foundation at clintblack.com.