Clint Black looked like the country star of the ‘90s when his debut album, “Killin’ Time,” was released in 1989, spawning five No. 1 country singles.
With his amiable, no-nonsense image and basic sound, Black--whose second album, 1990’s “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” was also a big hit--established himself as a strong concert draw and a respected member of Nashville’s new breed of singer-songwriter.
But the Garth Brooks juggernaut has rolled past him and everybody else in country music, although Black, 30, is still a couple of lengths ahead of the pack of new contenders--Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt et al.
The Houston native experienced a messy breakup and a major new alliance in the past year.
The split is with former manager Bill Ham, and it has generated a string of lawsuits that contributed to the two-year break between his second album and his current “The Hard Way,” a catchy-sounding study in deception and disillusionment. The alliance was his marriage last year to prime-time soap opera femme fatale Lisa Hartman.
In an interview, Black, who opens a series of four Southland shows on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, fielded the inevitable questions about the compatibility between Nashville and Hollywood, and his marriage’s effect on his image.
Question: Are you conscious of your image and how you present yourself to the public?
Answer: Sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not. You try and analyze yourself, and then you say forget it, I don’t even want to begin to do it. You start asking yourself how other people see you and the next thing you know you’re all screwed up in the head.
Q: Marrying a TV star, being on the cover of People magazine with her, living part time in L.A. . . . Do you worry that your fans will think you’ve gone Hollywood?
A: I don’t worry about it. It has been presented to me, the possibility, and I just don’t think it’s possible. The fans that I meet when I’m signing autographs after the show or doing a reception are fans of “Knots Landing” who loved Lisa’s singing on that and wonder why she didn’t make records, or is she gonna sing with me.
What I’ve heard from people is their excitement, and “Where is Lisa?"--that’s what they always want to know. Just a lot of well-wishers and people who want to tell me they saw “2000 Malibu Road” and like it and good luck and is (her character) gettin’ out of jail and all of that.
Q: Is there a bit of country in Lisa?
A: The truth is Lisa lives in cowboy boots and jeans and is from Houston and is more down to earth than I am. You’ll find me in some fancy-lookin’ sneakers, and she’s in her cowboy boots. Anybody who knows me could never figure that we were a strange combination.
And this phobia that has been alluded to, about Nashville worrying about artists going Hollywood, it’s preposterous. If you know any of the people in the industry in Nashville, they welcome the interest from Hollywood, and they trek out to Hollywood every chance they get.
Q: What kind of impact has all the litigation with your former manager had on you personally and professionally?
A: Professionally, I don’t think you can go through a transition like that without stumbling a bit. I’m a very driven person, and I’m very, very ambitious when it comes to my music and my career, and it didn’t take me long to look at things and figure out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.
Personally, it’s easy for me to leave that stuff to the lawyers. I’ve got so much to do out here, so much to think about, it’s not hard for me to leave it to the lawyers, and that’s what you’re supposed to do in a case like this. So it doesn’t really affect me, generally speaking.
Q: You’re different from a lot of new country artists in that you write your own songs. Why did you think that was important?
A: It dawned on me at some point when I was getting started that I didn’t want to be looking for songs all the time. I can spend my time writing a song, whereas otherwise I would be sitting with my producer listening to catalogue upon catalogue trying to find one song that I want. It’s just a better use of my time. I also wanted to be self-sufficient.
Q: Where did you get your subject matter?
A: Early on I started trying to observe everything I could about things that I knew would (someday) be a part of my past . . . things I could never go back to. I figured that my lifestyle would change if my dreams came true, so I needed to pay attention and remember what it’s like to be standing on the side of the road with a flat tire and not have a spare--all these things that living on a bus or airplanes you’re not exposed to as much. I used to go out and sit and watch people and have my napkins full of notes and little lines, just things that I would observe.
Q: There are a lot of downbeat songs on the new album. Did you feel that was risky commercially?
A: Not really. I thought more about diversity and dynamics than I did of the themes. My albums are filled with downbeat songs. That’s just country music. The biggest songs you’ll find in country music are like, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” because he died, you know. Most of the songs on my first album are about leaving somebody or getting left, or just drinking yourself blind and that sort of thing. It’s fun, isn’t it?
Q: Does that reflect your personality?
A: It’s not me at all. It’s just easy for me to write about that stuff. I don’t know. I’m a real happy guy. I’ve got my share of problems like anybody else. But even when I don’t, it’s easy for me to go to that place.
Q: Who were your musical heroes?
A: There’s a huge list of heroes. I was influenced largely by Merle Haggard, who wrote most everything he did, and also by guys like (Don) Henley and (Glenn) Frey, and Loggins & Messina, Jackson Browne. George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor. I’ve listened to all kinds of music. Bob Seger and Steely Dan and Little Feat. Johnny Winter--I love the blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Q: What about rock? Garth Brooks has said he was a KISS fan in high school.
A: Well, I had three older brothers, so we had everything around the house. Probably everything but KISS. I played bass in a band with my brother--one minute we’re playing “Redneck Mother,” and the next minute we’re doing “Long Distance Runaround” by Yes. I was exposed to everything from what my dad had, like Webb Pierce, to Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath. Until Dad got home from work, we could hear anything around the house.
Q: Why did you end up a country singer?
A: I was listening to what was happening in country music in the late ‘70s, and I didn’t know where I belonged. I was thinking, “I need to be over here where America and Bread and Dan Fogelberg are.” It wasn’t until George Strait and Reba (McEntire) and Ricky Skaggs came out and started to redefine country music that I realized that that’s where I belonged. They were doing traditional country music with a different energy.
Q: How do you explain the boom in country music? What are people responding to?
A: Good music. Good music that you don’t have to be a professor of poetry to understand. You can hear a country song the first time through and know what the singer’s singing about. It’s basically what makes Frank Sinatra the legend he is. You sing a song that tells a story, and you articulate it so that everyone can understand you and you’ve got great music backing you up. . . .
I think there’s a lot of people that were listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash; Loggins & Messina; the Eagles, and I think that audience had nowhere to go for a long time, and I think that country music is filling that void.
* Black performs tonight at the annual City of Hope fund-raising dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel, then plays on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre, Tuesday at the Santa Barbara Bowl and Wednesday at the Kern County Fairgrounds .