Hayden Nicholas, best known as the songwriting and guitar sidekick of singer Clint Black, relives the serendipitous moment when a childhood dream came true in an exclusive interview.
Nicholas' buddy had recorded "Hold on Partner," a jaunty country duet, with none other than the quintessential King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers, in early 1991. A subsequent trip to the prestigious Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards in Los Angeles with his mother in tow led to a fascinating conversation between Rogers and Nicholas, heretofore kept a tantalizing secret.
In his heyday of the '40s and '50s, Rogers was a ubiquitous pop culture presence. A founding member of country and western purveyors the Sons of the Pioneers, Rogers demonstrated his pleasing tenor voice, dexterous yodel, and rhythm guitar skills on a slew of cowboy standards including "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Don't Fence Me In" before venturing into acting.
The genial troubadour was a natural in front of the camera, soon rising to lead roles in B-Westerns, significant box office clout, and public appearances met with impassioned screams from youngsters dressed in cowboy regalia. Gene Autry, initially the upstart's rival, was soundly trounced in the aftermath of World War II.
Rogers transitioned seamlessly into primitive television with an eponymous series costarring Trigger, perhaps the most intelligent horse of all time, and his lovely wife, singer Dale Evans, responsible for penning the iconic "Happy Trails" as the couple's theme song.
A marketing genius who would have been right at home in modern times, Rogers ultimately acquired the rights to his films and series. His likeness appeared on best-selling comics, cook books, lunch boxes, trading cards, apparel...you name it. He conquered every medium and then some.
The deeply religious individual was an elder statesman approaching his eighth decade as the '90s commenced. Turning up occasionally at galas and charity events, Rogers was content to retire gracefully until producer Kyle Lehning tracked him down for a duet with Randy Travis. The baritone-voiced balladeer was traditional country music's hottest commodity at the time, and he had decided to record his next album with his favorite artists. Consequently, Rogers gladly traded verses on "Happy Trails."
Released as Heroes and Friends in 1990, the album achieved platinum status and may in fact have convinced another Nashville-based producer, Richard Landis, to ask Rogers if he would consider recording an entire duets album consisting of classic and new material. After a bit of arm twisting and considerable doubt that he still had the stamina, Rogers agreed.
Recorded when the expert yodeler was an astounding 79 years old, Tribute still stands head and shoulders above the rest of the breed. Rogers was invigorated, taking the recording seriously and easily giving each of his partners a run for their collective money.
When the elder statesman initially glimpsed Black, he thought he had met his long-lost son. Just kidding. The striking resemblance was uncanny. Instead, Rogers joked, "Hi Clint. I thought I got rid of all you black-hatted guys in the '40s."
Black was riding a wave of unfathomable success with his triple platinum debut album, Killin' Time, and killer followup, Put Yourself in My Shoes, and RCA naturally picked "Hold on Partner" as Tribute's lead single. Nominated for a Grammy in the Best Country Vocal Collaboration category, Rogers concluded his recording career on an extremely positive note.
The black-hatted singer extended the mutual admiration society in a 1993 interview, admitting that "Roy has been an American hero, and he is one of the icons of our society. He was always that Western hero. It was such a great experience to just hang around him." Stick around as Nicholas takes you inside his very special meeting with the King of the Cowboys.
On a personal note, I was beginning elementary school when "Hold on Partner" arrived. Obsessed with watching classic Westerns on VHS – we were considerably late cable TV adopters – when virtually none of my friends had even the slightest interest, my grandfather regularly teased me when I arrived home, asking, "Who is the greatest cowboy – Roy Rogers or John Wayne?" You be the judge.
The Hayden Nicholas Interview, Part Two
Did you actually play on the “Hold on Partner” session?
I don’t believe I did. The session was set up by producer Richard Landis in Nashville, and he hired a bunch of talented studio musicians [e.g. Brent Rowan/lead guitar, Steve Gibson/rhythm guitar, Paul Franklin/steel guitar, David Hungate/bass, Paul Leim/drums, Glen Duncan/fiddle, and Mitch Humphries/keyboards].
Clint basically just came in and did his vocal with Roy. We were so busy during that period of time. We were touring somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 dates a year, and we barely had time to record Clint’s second record.
What do you remember about the “Hold on Partner” music video?
Since we were on the same record label as Roy, RCA put him and Clint together to do a music video for “Hold on Partner” in order to promote the single. I was present on the set for awhile, and it was shot somewhere in California one day.
Vintage clips were interspersed from silent Westerns along with successful B-Western screen partnerships – i.e. the Lone Ranger/Tonto, Hopalong Cassidy/George “Gabby” Hayes, Gene Autry/Smiley Burnette, and of course, Roy himself.
At the time, a lot of people were always talking about how Clint resembled Roy, so the video was obviously a play on that fact. Clint wore black, while Roy wore traditional white as the hero. They sat on mechanical horses to simulate riding [laughs].
[Author’s Note: Receiving moderate airplay, “Hold on Partner” reached a Billboard peak of No. 42 C&W and became Rogers’ final charting single. Tribute climbed to No. 17 during a 26-week residency, Rogers’ best album placement on the country chart. The album is inexplicably out of print as of this writing, although the “Hold on Partner” duet was unearthed for Sony Legacy’s Playlist: The Very Best of Clint Black compilation in June 2009].
Did you have any memorable conversations with the King of the Cowboys?
The first time that I met Roy and spent any time with him was in California, possibly at the ACMs. RCA had one of their private parties, so we had dinner together.
I brought my mom, Beth Nicholas, to attend the awards with me. It was a big treat for her to get to meet Roy as well. Dale Evans, Roy’s wife, wasn’t there. He made some comment that she hadn’t been feeling too well [Author's Note: Evans suffered a moderate heart attack in May 1992]. Ironically, she passed away three years after her husband in 2001.
The thing that sticks out in my mind about that evening was we were all talking, and my mom mentioned an old honky-tonk at the border of New Mexico and West Texas. She had seen Roy and his band – the Sons of the Pioneers – performing there in the 1930s [Author's Note: Rogers left the group to become an actor for Republic Pictures at the end of 1937].
Roy remembered. He said, “Oh yeah…Snuffy’s. That was a rough joint.” It was one of those places that stilled echoed the Wild West. You didn’t hang out in the parking lot type of thing [laughs]. Mom and Roy had a wonderful conversation.
Clint and I were discussing an issue that we were experiencing with our tour bus. Roy heard our plight and remarked, “That’s a little different from the way that we used to travel when we toured. We had a couple of Sedans that we took turns driving. We would just pull over by the side of the road at dusk.
“A couple guys would start gathering wood. Somebody would build a fire. The bass player [likely Bob Nolan] was the best shot, so he would take his .22 rifle out and kill two or three cottontail rabbits for supper” [laughs]. They were pretty much camping out – kinda like Elvis did 20 years later during his tenure on Sun Records. Touring conditions didn’t change for awhile.
Clint and I had been talking about traveling in our one million dollar buses, and it was just kind of funny. Some food for thought, you know what I mean? Regardless, it was a great treat getting to sit and talk with Roy. That was cool.
- DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! "Without being too blunt about it, the consensus is that once you’re over 50, forget it, country radio is just not going to put you on their current playlist." Hayden Nicholas readily admits the difficulty of navigating modern radio and much more in Part Three of the interview, entitled "Clint Black's Guitar Compadre Confirms Upcoming Album and Country Radio Dilemma." Stick around to learn why Nicholas admires Willie Nelson's recording technique, reveals a soon to be released song called "The Last Day," written after the unexpected passing of Black's father, and shares a timetable for the black hatted-balladeer's 11th album comprised of original material, long clamored for by ardent fans. Don't miss it!
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Further Reading: John Wayne had no plans to retire after "The Shootist" opened to excellent reviews but slow box office receipts in August 1976. After open heart surgery in late spring 1978, the Duke was determined to begin work on "Beau John." He went to impressive lengths to secure the project, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bidded for "True Grit" 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with one of his recent costars. Little has been known about the unfinished film until now. To learn more about the one project that gave Wayne some much needed hope during his final days, head on over to "'Beau John': The Untold Story of John Wayne's Last Project."
Further Reading No. 2: Why has Clint Black's recording output during the past decade decreased so dramatically? The critically-acclaimed "Drinkin' Songs and Other Logic", released in October 2005, was his last album of all-new material. A record deal with Cracker Barrel in 2013 yielded promising signs – a greatest hits album with a persistent love theme that featured three brand new songs. Still, a myriad of personal and professional reasons for the release inactivity – enforced or not – are explored in an informative commentary entitled "Paging Mr. Clint Black: When Will a New Studio Album Be on the Country Singer's Horizon?"
Further Reading No. 3: Have you thought about seeing Clint Black in person, but for one reason or another, you haven't gotten around to doing so? Then check out the following detailed review of this supremely talented country artist in concert: "Spendin' a Little Time in Concert with a Country Troubadour". In a remarkable achievement, Black's debut single, "A Better Man", went all the way to No. 1 in 1989. Raised in Houston, the songwriter continued to rule the charts throughout the subsequent decade, giving Garth Brooks a fine run for his money with enduring compositions such as "Like the Rain", "When I Said I Do", and "Nothin' But the Taillights".
- Exclusive Interview: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who's who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic "Stood Up" b/w "Waitin' in School" driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Burly character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with John Wayne. By far, "Big Jake" contains Palmer's best work with the towering legend. In the action-packed 1971 Western, the 6'4", 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens Big Jake's grandson with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever tangle with the Duke. In a quite rare two-part interview with the 86-year-old thespian [e.g. "The Man Who Killed John Wayne's Dog"], the gentle giant relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
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