As part of the neo-traditional boom, Clint Black released some of the crowning achievements and finest albums during the '90s. Like Alan Jackson and Randy Travis, Black's early albums highlighted the working man's blues with earnest detail and gritty determination. His combination of sharp vocals, clever hooks, and conscious lyrics continued to blossom as the decade passed.
Throughout his career, he delivered a mix of fun-loving honky-tonkers and incredibly stoic and intimate love ballads. It never really mattered what the subject was, Black always had an answer for it. His ability to play the heartbroken fool in one song and the sentimental and caring lover in the next was uncanny. He delivered each with an honest touch that resonates to this day.
Much of that can be attributed to the fact that Black's written the vast majority of songs he's recorded throughout his career. There's an unmistakable tone in Black's catalog that's uniquely Black. More often than not, there's a piercing warble and signature texture that helps create Black's dynamic moments.
Here, we count down 15 of Clint Black's greatest songs to date.
15. "When My Ship Comes In"
So many of Black's songs are rooted in idioms and expressions. Right from the jump, Black sets the scene with a clear and defined expression with "When My Ship Comes In." Found on 1993's The Hard Way, it finds Black playful and laid-back. Like George Strait's "Ocean Front Property," it's partly built on a tongue-in-cheek pipe dream comment. Where Strait's trying to sell you a piece of ocean front property in Arizona, Black's saying he'll be able to sail out of landlocked Colorado once he catches his big break.
14. "Nothin' But The Taillights"
While so many of Black's successes came from powerful love and breakup ballads, Black delivered humorous up-tempo singalongs with the best of them. Written with Steve Wariner, "Nothin' But the Taillights" is chock-full of vivid imagery. With his thumb out in the wind and hitchhiking back into town, we hear Black's bewildered inner dialogue slowly turn into plotting his own revenge against his scorned lover. In all, it makes for good storytelling.
13. "Killin' Time"
When Black finally scored a record deal in Nashville in the late '80s, he came out swinging with a run of Billboard chart-topping singles. "Killin' Time," the second from his debut album, was sharp and progressive while maintaining a healthy callback to traditional country moods. The opening lines of "You were the first thing that I thought of when I thought I drank you off my mind" exemplified both Black's clever wordplay and scene setting language. "This killing time is killing me" is incredibly simple, yet has an effortless barroom poetry quality to it that was reminiscent of sad ballad crooners such as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
12. "A Good Run of Bad Luck"
Found on the Maverick soundtrack, Black scored yet another No. 1 hit with "A Good Run of Bad Luck," his eighth at the time. Armed with plenty of gambling metaphors, "A Good Run of Bad Luck" rolls down the table like a pair of tumbling dice. Black sings with blazing speed throughout the fun-loving number. A howling harmonica sets the pace throughout like a train chugging along in the sepia-toned Western backdrop.
11. "Nothing's News"
During the '90s, no one in country music quite pulled off the sad high and lonesome like Black. For a song steeped in nostalgia, "Nothing's News" doesn't find Black comforted by the good old times. Rather, he uses them to compare how unfulfilling the present is. He's missing a large piece of his identity, and as it turns out, it's because he's a not just a broken man, he's a heartbroken one too.
10. "You Don't Need Me Now"
Written with long-time Black collaborator Shake Russell, "You Don't Need Me Now" again finds Black searching for answers. There's a sobering self-awareness to the 1997 song. Black knows his relationship is on the rocks. He reads the writing on the wall. But what sets "You Don't Need Me Now" apart from similar heartbreakers is Black's exposed confession of acknowledging that one day, he'll need her and understanding she won't be around to help pick up the pieces.
9. "Where Are You Now"
For the vast majority of his career, guitarist and bandleader Hayden Nicholas has served as the Lennon to Black's McCartney. The writing partners have produced some of the era's greatest songs. In many ways, "Where Are You Now" and "You Don't Need Me Now" occupy the same territory. Where "You Don't Need Me Now" finds an aware Black, "Where Are You Now" is him being blindsided by the turn of events. He's left searching for a way to put out that burning question after she's left him high and dry.
8. "Loving Blind"
A massive aspect to Black's stark and cold heartbreakers of the '90s was how he set the table for each song. He understood space and pacing perhaps better than any of his country crooning peers. Sure, "Loving Blind" is full of sorrowful piano, violin, and pedal steel, but it's the space between their short sobbing cameos that makes it so effective. He does it time and again throughout the '90s, but none are as haunting as the gothic tones of "Loving Blind."
7. "Still Holding On"
"Still Holding On" is yet another classic Black song found on 1997's Nothin' But the Taillights. Martina McBride joins Black on the magical duet. The song received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals in 1998. While songs like "A Bad Goodbye," "Loving Blind" and "Where Are You Now" find Black in the midst of heartbreak, "Still Holding On" takes a spin on the subject. He and McBride acknowledge their eventual breakup as probably being the best way to handle the situation. Still, the two haven't fallen completely out of love. They're still holding out hope that they'll be able to rekindle the flame after a needed break.
6. "Untanglin' My Mind"
Though Black has primarily stuck with the same group trusted co-writers throughout his career, every once in a while, he'd score a hit with someone outside that circle. On One Emotion's "Untanglin' My Mind," Black collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard. As a classic divorce ballad, it naturally highlights some of Black and Haggard's finest points as songwriters. Here, they focus on the details of the busted up marriage. There's not a huge or blistering blow on "Untanglin' My Mind," but rather, it hits you hard due to those fine details. It's death by a million papercuts.
5. "A Bad Goodbye"
Much like "Still Holding On" and "Loving Blind," Black and Wynonna Judd create a dark, brooding atmosphere on "A Bad Goodbye." But rather than harkening on the pitfalls of their love coming to an end, the two take the high road. It's the classic "I love you, but I'm not in love with you." That sense of maturity is rarely mutual, but here, Black and Judd find a way. Like McBride before (and Lisa Hartman a few songs down), Black and Judd's chemistry is undeniable. It's both bittersweet and touching all at once.
4. "A Better Man"
While many of Black's songs have iconic guitar licks that pop, one of Black's best-kept secrets is how often he returns to the piano to truly set the pace. "Loving Blind" and "A Bad Goodbye" may take the cake for creating the gothic ambiance, but even as far back as "A Better Man" off his debut album, Black was letting the piano help create the mood. On "A Better Man," another Hayden Nicholas co-write, Black takes a defined image to set the table--"I'm leaving here a better man for knowing you this way." Much like "A Bad Goodbye," Black offers a mature take on the breakup. He knows one effect of this relationship has been becoming a better individual, even if a heartbreak has been the cost.
3. "When I Said I Do"
Found on 1999's D'Lectrified, "When I Said I Do" is another robust duet by Black. This time around, it's with his wife, Lisa Hartman Black. Like many of Black's songs, "When I Said I Do" finds Black creating a dynamic atmosphere that rivals his mature and seasoned lyrics. While "When I Said I Do" is certainly country, it sees Black expanding his musical palette with elegant piano and sweeping string arrangements. Hartman's vocal contributions blend well with Black's crisp and crystalline vocals.
2. "Something That We Do"
Like "When I Said I Do," "Something That We Do" finds Black as an experienced songwriter and matured voice. It's a love song that doesn't focus on the superficial and it's not chock full of cliched tropes of the day. "Something That We Do" isn't the romantic ode of a young man. Rather, Black fully accepts the lows with the highs in a relationship. While most often use love as a noun or short-sighted action, Black's "Something That We Do" focuses on the journey--"Love isn't something that we have, it's something that we do."
1. "Like The Rain"
In 1996, Black released his first Greatest Hits compilation. On it, he added four new songs, one being the goosebumps-inducing "Like The Rain." It's another song written by the tag team of Black and Nicholas. Again, Black utilizes the piano better than any of his '90s neo-traditional contemporaries. Like "Loving Blind," "Like The Rain" is paced by Black's use of space. It's not cluttered so when the thunder-clapping drums finally come with the chorus, it's a memorable moment. One of Black's best tricks as a vocalist is his ability to restrain and pull back. He's never over the top or overselling his lines. But like those drums, when he does finally let off an emotional wail, it's powerful.
This post was originally published on December 12, 2018.