The year 1989 changed country music forever— and no, it’s not just because that was the year Taylor Swift was born.
It could be argued that modern country’s commercial roots could be traced back to that year, the eve of a new decade of economic prosperity and happiness for America. And thanks to the efforts of a select few country artists, it was the dawning of a new era of economic prosperity for country music, too.
As a member of country music’s famed “Class of ’89,” Clint Black helped to rejuvenate the genre for a new decade. Until 1988, the presumption was that in order for any country artist to reach any level of success, they had to cross over into the pop format. (Come to think of it, it still is, but the biggest examples in the 80s were Hank Jr. and Alabama). Black, along with fellow “classmates” Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks, rose to prominence in 1989 as a trio of hat wearing, honky-tonk throwbacks who played standard country with commercial appeal, and the genre was never the same.
Of those three artists, Black’s star rose the quickest. With his black hat, quick wit and uncanny resemblance to Roy Rogers, the Texan had four consecutive No. 1s and nine Top 10 hits by 1991. By the end of the 90s, though, Jackson and Brooks surpassed Black career-wise. While Brooks had become a household name due to his live shows and Jackson enjoyed a career boost due to “Drive” and “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Black took a sabbatical to be a dad to his newborn daughter, and eventually create a new record label.
So a Clint Black show in 2016, on a tour in support of his first album since 2005, rightly feels like a throwback. There were some new songs played from 2015’s “On Purpose,” but a majority of the 90-minute set at One World Theatre Sunday night came from those early years, starting with 1989.
Black, backed by a talented 5-piece band, took advantage of the intimate setting at the sold-out venue to perform stripped-down versions of older songs and to have conversations with the crowd. He even started the show with a pretty good Willie Nelson impression on “Time of the Preacher,” followed by an example of that aforementioned quick wit.
“I met Willie one time, he invited me on his bus,” Black told the crowd after that song. “So I walked on in, and I couldn’t see him anywhere,” he said, motioning as if he was clearing smoke from his eyes, to the delight of the audience. “I don’t know, I guess they were burning some…’toast’ and it was really smoky, and then Willie emerges from the smoke, and offers me some ‘toast.’ And I said, ‘Willie, I gotta go, I’m supposed to be on stage,’ and I got right off the bus, and I wasn’t on the bus but for…well, I lost track of time…I wasn’t on there long. And when I made it inside to the wings, I was toast. And that’s a true story as far as you know.”
That story might have been scripted (Willie covers have shown up on other setlists for Black’s tour), but it felt genuine, and it’s a testament to Black’s showmanship that it felt like a genuine connection with the audience. Another stage-bit highlight of the night was when he joked, “Because this is such a small venue, y’all might get a little bit of a different show. We did have to cut out all of the dance numbers and wardrobe changes.”
Speaking of the audience, it looked like it mostly consisted of people who were fans from the beginning of Black’s career, but the age of the average attendee was belied by the enthusiastic shouts and hollers during many songs, especially on “Killin’ Time.”
The only new songs Black performed— “Better and Worse” and “Still Calling It News”— were still hits with the audience, but most came to see Black’s old stuff, the hits that will forever be linked to his name when he eventually becomes a Country Music Hall of Famer. But when most of county radio is full of the Florida Georgia Lines and Jason Aldeans of the genre, spending an evening killing time with such a talented, understated artist makes the old hits feel brand new again.
“Live and Learn”
“The Time of the Preacher”/”Couldn’t Believe It Was True”/”Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” (Willie Nelson medley)
“Better and Worse”
“Shoes You’re Wearing”
“Code of the West”
“When My Ship Comes In”
“Like the Rain”
“Good Run of Bad Luck”
“No Time To Kill”
“One More Payment and It’s Mine”
“State of Mind”
“Still Calling it News”
“Put Yourself In My Shoes”
“We Tell Ourselves”
“Are You Sure Waylon Done it This Way” (Waylon Jennings cover)
“Nothin’ But the Taillights”