Black Is Bountiful

Artist: Clint Black.

Personnel: Black, vocals, guitar; Hayden Nicholas, guitar; Dick Gay, drums; Jake Willemain, bass; Jeff Peterson, steel guitar, dobro; John Permenter, fiddle.

History: Black is a 27-year-old Houston native who recently topped Billboard's country charts with his first single, "Better Man." After flirting with the harmonica, which he picked up at 13 (actually purloined one from one of his older brothers), Black turned to guitar at 15 and got his first public exposure playing at his family's weekly back-yard barbecues. He kept singing while working a variety of jobs from iron worker to bait cutter and fishing guide. After playing the club circuit around Houston for six years, Black landed a meeting in 1987 with ZZ Top's manager Bill Ham, who had long been interested in managing a country artist and subsequently helped negotiate his deal with RCA Records.

Sound: As both singer and songwriter, Black demonstrates much to be admired in the nine songs on his debut album, "Killin' Time." With frequent songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas, Black willingly invokes country-music stereotypes--the hard-drinkin' man, the heartfelt goodby--only to turn them on their heads. A perfect example is his first single, "Better Man," the country chart-topper. This is one man who finds new strength and wisdom, rather than the bottom of a whiskey bottle, after a painful romantic farewell. Black has a winning vocal style that evokes a very young Merle Haggard at times, and musically he can Western-swing just as hard as fellow Texan George Strait, which he proves on the delightful "Straight From the Factory."

Shows: Opening for Dolly Parton on Wednesday and Thursday at Universal Amphitheatre.

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