Clint Black could've just stuck with what worked.
He emerged from Houston, Texas in the late '80s and began his ongoing run as a Nashville star with four straight No. 1 singles in '89 and '90: his debut album's title track, "Killin' Time," plus "A Better Man," "Nobody's Home" and "Walkin' Away." Since then, he's stayed in the limelight alongside celebrity wife Lisa Hartman Black, finding more success as a singer-songwriter and trying his own hand at acting, most notably in the 1994 film Maverick and the 1998 TV movie Still Holding On: The Legend of Cadillac Jack.
Yet Black's devoted time and effort over the years to improve his already successful art. Ever since he helped usher in a time of prosperity for country music, he's added slide guitar to his skillset and expanded his palette as a producer and engineer. Black's professional improvements, and the relationships formed along the way, mark his most recent album, 2020's Out of Sane.
Black entered the mainstream as part of country music's Class of '89. Black, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Lorrie Morgan served as heralds of the lucrative stadium tours and staggering Soundscan era album sales that were right around the corner.
"We had seen Ricky Skaggs and Reba and George Strait and Randy Travis were really doing big business, but it really took off," Black says. "It was the beginning of a big growth period that really by the summer of '93 had seen a combined sales in country music that was far beyond anything they'd ever seen before."
By 1994, this boom in country music business positioned Black, Tritt, Tanya Tucker and The Judds to headline the Super Bowl halftime show. The "Rockin' Country Sunday" performance came just one year after Michael Jackson transformed the halftime show into must-see TV.
"It's one of those great, exciting, fun moments," Black recalls. "It didn't seem out of place to me. It seemed like country music belonged there. I'd say in general that they don't have enough country music. They have a lot of rock and pop, but not nearly enough country music to reflect the sports fanbase."
Even from his catbird's seat, Black stayed hungry. For example, the build-up to his 1997 album Nothin' but the Taillights found Black working with frequent collaborator Hayden Nicholas to grow as a slide guitarist. Black also spent part of '97 as a beta tester for ProTools software, which expanded his creative horizons as a producer and engineer.
Nothin' but the Taillights brought Black two more No. 1 hits: the title track and "Put Yourself in My Shoes." The following album, 1999's D'lectrified, was the first solely produced by Black. Its first single, Lisa Hartman Black duet "When I Said I Do," earned him his fifth career Academy of Country Music award.
Lately, becoming a more versatile guitarist opened the door for Black to dig deeper into his appreciation for classic rock, including the Harry Nilsson song featured on Out of Sane, "Everybody's Talkin'."
"The band and I were messing around with classic rock tunes to cover," Black says. "Mostly for fun, but a couple of them actually have come out: this one, and we did 'Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.' We were just messing around, and I was looking through my iTunes folder. I saw that title and said, 'Oh!' We all love that song. Everybody loves that song. Harry did it and Glen Campbell did it. Fred Neil wrote it. We decided to mess around with it, but part of our aim was to try to bring some new life to it and try to do it a little different without ruining the feel of the vocal. We just sort of stumbled into that feel and loved it, and off we went."
Time-tested rock 'n' roll has always impacted the music of Black and his peers, with The Eagles almost as important to the development of '90s country as performers' childhood affinity for George Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.
"Alan Jackson didn't know who Don Henley was when we did that Common Thread album, but most of us, at least in '90s country, grew up on classic rock and blues," Black adds. "Good music is good music."
Jackson not hearing "James Dean" blaring from a Waffle House jukebox often enough to want to study Eagles liner notes seems a little off, but Black insists that his fellow Class of '89 member doubled down on being clueless about Henley.
"He and I were talking about it, and he didn't appear to really know who they were," Black says. "He could've been pulling my leg, but I was trying to get it out of him. I started naming songs, and he just played it at least like he didn't know."
Black could've been justifiably content with his creative toolbox and professional legacy at numerous points, from the 1994 Super Bowl to his 1996 addition to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his shared 1999 Grammy win for "Same Old Train." Yet he maintains a hunger that should inspire younger artists with a similar drive to constantly learn.
"I don't think there's necessarily a lesson except for those who are driven to it," he says. "It shouldn't be something that everyone should do if you don't have a passion for it. I know artists that come into town and sing their record for four days and then go back to their boat. That's great for them. For me, I don't want a single thing happening with my music if I'm not there, so that's my passion. Anyone who has that same passion though, it should be a lesson. You're going to be exposed to great musicians. You're going to be around great engineers and producers. So if you start learning now, who knows what you'll know in 10 years."
This drive's kept the "A Good Run of Bad Luck" singer in the spotlight in recent months, from his daughter Lily Pearl Black's Grand Ole Opry debut to his surprise appearance alongside Lisa Hartman Black as the snow owls on The Masked Singer. The latter inspired a new song from Clint and Lisa, "Til the End of Time."