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THE HOTTEST ROOKIE AROUND : On the Strength of Just One Album, Clint Black Already Has Arrived

TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POP CRITIC

A few years ago, G.A. Black of Katy, Tex., told his youngest son, Clint, that he ought to forget about writing country songs and just concentrate on singing other people’s stuff.

In a backhanded way, this fatherly advice turned out to be extremely effective. It helped spur Clint Black to become what he is today: by far the hottest rookie singer/songwriter in country music.

A construction crane operator and “true country music fanatic,” as his son puts it, G.A. figured that real country songwriters need a substantial fund of life experience to draw upon. Serve prison time like Haggard. Battle the bottle like Jones. Walk that hard line, like Cash. Then you can tell the world about it in a song.

“I was 24 at the time,” Black, now 28, recalled in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Rochester, N.Y. (he opens for Alabama at Irvine Meadows on Sunday, July 15). “He (his father) said, ‘You really haven’t done enough living--shooting pool, drinking beer and getting in fights.’ That’s what he believed, and he discouraged me. ‘Go look for (other writers’) songs--or go get drunk and get in fights.’ ”

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Instead, the younger Black got ornery. “I went home, and in 20 minutes I wrote ‘Nothing’s News’ to show my dad that proverb was true: You don’t have to stick your hand in the fire to know how it feels.”

The song, about an ennui-stricken protagonist who pines for beer-drinking, barroom-brawling days gone by, eventually wound up on Black’s 1989 debut album, “Killin’ Time,” along with nine other songs Black either wrote himself or co-wrote with his guitarist, Hayden Nicholas.

Today, “Killin’ Time” has sold more than a million copies, spent an aggregate of 21 weeks at the top of the Billboard country albums chart (where it remained last week) and produced four No. 1 singles. Now, in a bid for a fifth, “Nothing’s News” has also been released as a single. Thanks for the advice, Pop.

In fact, Black said, firsthand experience--his difficult decision in 1987 to end a seven-year love relationship--did give rise to three of the songs on “Killin’ Time.”

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“I’d fallen out of love and decided we should call it quits,” Black recalled in his easygoing, deep and mellow Texas twang. “Then I started having regrets. Maybe I’d made a mistake.”

Unable to reach his ex to patch things up, Black called his dad for emotional support. This time G.A., sticking to his true-experience-makes-good-songs theory, offered another bit of fatherly advice.

“My dad told me to take advantage of it and write ‘a good Joneser.’ ” Black did just that, writing “Nobody’s Home,” a slow heartbreak ballad in the George Jones tradition. It turned into a No. 1 hit.

Black did get back together with his longtime girlfriend, but the relationship succumbed for good six months later. The artistic issue of Black’s second parting with the woman was “A Better Man,” a noteworthy song in which the usual post-breakup bitterness and woe are replaced by a sense of warmth and thankfulness toward his former partner.

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I know I’m leavin’ here a better

man

For knowin’ you this way.

Things I couldn’t do before, now I

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think I can

And I’m leavin’ here a better man.

“Most of the time in country music, we focus on the dejection and the heartbreaks,” Black said. “I said, ‘Let’s look at the positive side of this thing.’ ”

With a top-selling album and a sweep last April of four Academy of Country Music awards (best album, best single (“A Better Man”), best male vocalist and best new male vocalist), Black clearly has arrived as a peer of George Strait and Randy Travis in the running for most popular figure in country’s young traditionalist movement.

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Strait and Travis write very little of their own material, though. Country’s greatest performers have been songwriters too. With his pithy, incisive way with a lyric and his strong melodic sense, Black is one of the few young country contenders who promises to carry on the Haggard-Jones-Owens tradition in all its dimensions.

Black has also shown signs of an adventurous streak that could let him stretch beyond the usual bounds of what strict traditionalism allows. One album track, “Live and Learn,” is a New Orleans-style blues with an oompah beat and a philosophical bent. In concert, Black said, he covers the Fats Waller jazz-based standard “Ain’t Misbehavin.’ ”

For his next album he has written a song with a similar feel, “almost a big-band blues.”

With a music fanatic for a father, Black grew up steeped in country tradition. “He was always bringing records home,” the singer recalled. “He’d stop off on the way home from work and get a 45 and say ‘Listen to this, you oughta sing this song.’

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“The radio was always tuned to country--I heard everything. My friends and brothers were into rock ‘n’ roll too, so I heard that as well.”

Black began playing the harmonica at 13. Then he moved on to playing the guitar and singing. “When I learned three or four songs, I ran around the neighborhood and would play ‘em over and over for anyone and everyone.

“All my friends said, ‘You’ve got a great voice, you’re gonna be a star someday.’ In Houston, if you sounded halfway decent, they thought you’d end up on the radio someday. They told me, and I believed them. I was probably 16, and I decided this is what I was gonna do.”

Black played bass for a while in a band led by one of his older brothers, then became a solo performer on the Houston club circuit, honing his music while supporting himself with day jobs. Leery of approaching record companies on his own, he rejected the notion of moving to Nashville to pursue his big break. Instead, his break came when a Houston record promoter who had taken an interest in Black gave one of his tapes to Bill Ham, manager of the rock band ZZ Top, in May, 1987.

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“Two days later I was sitting in (Ham’s) office. I played him everything I’d written. He said, ‘Well, I think you ought to take off in country music, running as swiftly as you can go.’ ”

Prophetic words. With Ham as his manager, Black landed a deal with RCA Records. The success of his first single, “A Better Man,” primed the pump for Black’s album when it arrived in spring, 1989. Country fans responded to a voice carrying that lived-in, Haggard-style stamp, with just the right amount of dignified catch and choke for emotional effect. Female fans, in particular, responded to Black’s chiseled good looks, another asset he shares with Strait and Travis.

Black said the only facet of his success that took him completely by surprise has been the recent movement of “Killin’ Time” into the Top 40 on the Billboard pop chart.

“I had real high hopes and ambitions, and I believed my songs were good enough” to hit home with country listeners, he said. “But I have to say I have been surprised (that the album) has done as well as it has. I’m a big dreamer, and it has surpassed my dreams.”

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Black said he finds it a little frustrating that his quick rise on the charts has been accompanied by a go-slow strategy when it comes to touring. While he has worked steadily on the road over the last year, he has appeared as an opening act for more veteran performers, such as Alabama, instead of occupying the headline status that most platinum-selling singers command.

“We could have gone out and done some dates (as a headliner) and maybe made some more money,” he said, “but my manager made it real clear that it would be a benefit to be introduced to these (more established) acts’ audiences, to hold back a bit and say we are new to the concert-goers, and let’s have us a nice introduction through Alabama. And if we can capture these concert audiences, we can come back and do it ourselves next year.

“Everything’s been so fast. I like seeing the album sales go quickly, and the singles go to No. 1 real quick. But there’s a certain pressure that goes with headlining.”

There is also pressure in trying to follow up a striking debut success. Black said he is 70% finished with the successor to “Killin’ Time” that is scheduled for an October release.

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“I’ve given it some thought,” he said of the high expectations that await his second album. “As long as the songs can stand up and compare in quality in my mind--I trust my judgment there. If the popularity wanes a bit, I’ll have to deal with it.

“The whole aim is just to try and settle in to where I can do this comfortably for the rest of my life.”

Who Clint Black.

When Sunday, July 15, 8 p.m.

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Where Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Black will share a bill with Alabama and Suzy Bogguss.

Whereabouts 405 Freeway to Irvine Center Drive exit. Turn left at the end of the ramp if you’re coming from the south, right if you’re coming from the north.

Wherewithal $19.50 to $27.

Where to call (714) 855-8096.

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