To Clint Black, having a distinctive sound has always been an overriding goal for his music.
It’s one reason he doesn’t listen to much current country music, particularly when he is writing for a new album.
“The target, aside from all of the other obvious ones, is to be original,” Black said.
“Unless you want to listen to every ounce of everything that’s out there so you’ll know you’re not like anything else, you’re better off, I think, to stay away.”
Originality was also a big factor in Black starting to play electric guitar on his albums, beginning with the 1997 release “Nothin’ but the Taillights.” He was no virtuoso, but that wasn’t the point. Black’s playing helped him sound different from other country artists.
And originality had a lot to do with why 10 years passed before Black followed up his 2005 release, “Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic,” and the release in fall 2015 of his 10th studio album, “On Purpose.”
Black stayed busy during those years, touring regularly, writing music for film and television and doing some acting.
But a big reason a new album wasn’t coming was he was sorting through offers from major Nashville labels that wanted him to record outside songs in hopes of having a hit single.
As an artist who had written or co-written virtually every song on his albums, that was no small issue and went right to the core of perhaps the biggest ingredient in Black’s originality – his songwriting. And the labels were told about Black’s songwriting history.
“I think what they wanted to do was listen to everything I’d been working on and be all kind and thoughtful in the process. Then, ultimately, they would say, ‘If you will just let us find you a hit, we’ll go and work it,’” Black said.
It wasn’t the first time by a longshot that Black had encountered pressure to record outside songs. In fact, it was pretty much a constant occurrence with his first label, RCA Records.
His 1989 debut album, “Killin’ Time,” became a blockbuster, spawning five No. 1 singles.
By the time the album finished its run, Black was being hailed as a leader of country’s new traditionalist movement that was pushing country back toward its rustic roots.
Despite having co-written or written every song on “Killin’ Time,” whenever it was time for a new album, RCA would pressure him to record outside songs – and Black would refuse.
Finally, Black went to the head of RCA and asked why the label kept pushing him to record outside songs.
“I will never forget what he said to me because it was a crushing blow,” Black said. “He said, ‘They just want a little taste.’ So, all of that pressure to record outside songs had nothing to do with the quality of my songs. And all it had to do was some political relationships and bargaining, like they’re collecting delegates for award shows.
“I thought, ‘That is absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear. I’m trying to be authentic here, and you’re asking me to throw away my life’s work so you can get me nominated for an award or something? Is that what this is about?’”
Black left RCA after launched his own label, Equity Records. He made three albums on Equity – 1999’s “D’lectrified,” 2004’s “Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic” – before the label was closed in 2006.
Then began the search for a new label deal, which didn’t end until Black rejected three major labels and instead turned toward indie labels, signing with Thirty Tigers.
The album that emerged, “On Purpose,” sounds like prototypical Clint Black, rooted in classic country, but with a touch of pop and a bit more edge.
There are a few easygoing rockers (“Still Call It News,” “Beer” and “Making You Smile”) and several ballads, including “Right on Time,” “Summertime Song” and “One Way to Live.”
Songs like “Time for That” and “Better and Worse” find a middle ground, generating a relaxed energy and a nice mix between acoustic and electric instrumentation. There’s also a jaunty bluesy duet between Black and his wife of 25 years, actress Lisa Hartman Black, in “You Still Get to Me.”
On his current tour, Black is playing songs from across his career.
“I’m doing a lot of hits,” he said. “I’m doing at least a few songs off of the new CD, and then a couple of songs that are album cuts.”
And Black has no plans to ease up any time soon with his career.
“I want to keep touring,” he said. “I love doing the shows and I love having a band. And if you want to have a band, you’ve got to tour. But then I’m looking ahead to recording more, not any time soon, but sooner than ‘On Purpose’ happened.” I’m also working on some film and television projects.
“I don’t intend to slow down.”