Some folks laugh all the way to the bank. Right now, country singer Clint Black is laughing on his way past the bank. The edifice is a Houston office tower that Black helped construct a few years ago while laboring as an ironworker. “I hated that kind of work,” says Black, who much prefers viewing the building from his current vantage point: sitting in the back of a black limousine, relaxing after performing before a hometown crowd of 30,000, secure in the knowledge that his hit “Better Man” is the first debut single to go to No. 1 on the country charts since Jessi Colter did it with “I’m Not Lisa” 14 years ago.
Auguries suggest that Black is likely to be more than a one-shot wonder. His debut album, Killin’ Time, has gone to No. 2; he has been nominated for three Country Music Association awards; and the likes of Dolly Parton and K.T. Oslin have hired him as an opening act. One person who hasn’t called is Randy Travis, perhaps because the green-eyed, handsome Black could become a threat to his market share. Like Travis, Black, 27, is a young man with a voice that’s Haggard beyond his years and a look that can turn a young woman’s fancy to thoughts of haylofts. Marriage proposals from strangers and requests for locks of his hair have become routine. The weirdest request, says Black, came from a woman who approached him at an autograph session, plopped her nail clipper in front of him and demanded a few of his fingernails. “I don’t know what she could have wanted them for,” says Black, “but I had just spent so much time gettin’ them right, scrubbin’ ’em and filing ’em down”—this is one fastidious country boy—”I just said, ‘No, you can’t have my fingernails.’ ” As Buck Owens once remarked about Black’s dangerous effect on women, “He’s the kind of guy you’d want to take home to meet your father, if you could trust your mother.”
Black’s delight in that kind of reaction helped propel him down his chosen career path. “In high school I was a loner,” he says. “I wasn’t popular with girls until I sang in the talent show in my junior year. I won second place and I got all this attention.” He liked it, A lot. From then on, “I took my guitar everywhere I went,” he says. “I was obsessed.”
“Clint just loved an audience,” says his mother, Ann, who with her crane operator husband, G.A.—the initials don’t stand for anything; G.A. is the man’s name—raised an all-male brood that also includes Mark, 32, Brian, 31, and Kevin, 30. “Sometimes he’d get out his guitar with the kids on the back porch and sing for them. Or he and Kevin would sit in the kitchen and play while I was fixing supper.” Adds Brian: “Clint has always been so determined. He never quit. In high school he was painfully short. I think it’s one of the things that brought him to have the willpower he does.”
Black—who now stands 5’9″ or so—hit the Houston lounge circuit as soon as he graduated from high school in 1980. He worked day jobs in construction and, briefly, as a bait cutter in Galveston, but he never lost sight of his musical goal. “People told me ever since I was a teenager that I was going to become a star,” says Black. “I wanted it so bad.” In 1987 he teamed up with guitarist Hayden Nicholas, who set Black’s lyrics to music. The pair sent a scratchy demo tape to Bill Ham, ZZ Top’s manager, who signed them pronto. Recalls Black: “He said, ‘Clint, do you want to be a star?’ And I said. ‘Yup.’ ” Five months later they had a record contract with RCA.
Black and Nicholas, who now plays guitar in Clint’s band, have done more than Killin’ Time—some 40 songs more, by their count. “We’re several albums ahead of ourselves,” says Nicholas. Which is just as well. Since May, Black has been crisscrossing the country, singin’, signin’ and speakin’, the three S’s of music promotion. “You’ve got to want that hour in front of an audience to spend the other 23 doing what you’ve done to get to that town and do the local interviews,” says Black. “I’ve got that obsession.” As for romance, he allows that “there’s a number in my book I don’t have to look in my book to get.” She lives in Houston, works for the county and avoids the spotlight. “She’s special,” says Black, “but we have an understanding that we can’t have a commitment. Settling down is a luxury that I don’t see me being able to afford for quite some time.”
Two luxuries he hopes to afford in the not-too-distant future are a Winnebago for his folks and a horse ranch for himself. But that’s still a way off; at the moment he’s working on not feeling guilty when he buys expensive boots. “It still feels really strange to gather up $500 and go into a Western-wear store and spend it,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘What’s it going to be like when I can go in there and buy everything I like?’ ”
As Dan Rather might say, were he to report on this particular crisis: Courage, Clint. No one said it was going to be easy.
—Steve Dougherty, Victoria Balfour in Houston