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Straight from the factory with Clint Black's songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas

An exclusive interview finds Clint Black's chief songwriting compadre Hayden Nicholas judiciously agreeing to go on-the-record regarding his storied career with the multiple Academy of Country Music Award recipient.

Songwriter-guitarist Hayden Nicholas finds the perfect matching brick background outside the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., on April 15, 2013
Songwriter-guitarist Hayden Nicholas finds the perfect brick background in Mitchell, S.D., 2013; Photography by Jake Willemain
Holding a trusty Taylor 912 acoustic guitar, songwriter Hayden Nicholas sports a winning black vest and white shirt combo while plugging his first novel, Ezekiel's Choice, on WCYB News 5 in Bristol, Tenn., May 17, 2013
Holding a trusty Taylor 912 acoustic guitar, songwriter Hayden Nicholas sports a winning black vest and white shirt combo while plugging his first novel, Ezekiel's Choice, on WCYB News 5 in Bristol, Tenn., May 17, 2013; Courtesy of Hayden Nicholas

Currently performing an exemplary unplugged reimagining of Black's greatest hits in packed venues across America, the Fender Telecaster maestro was ready, willin', and able to explore his debut encounter with Black at a nondescript Sugar Land, Texas country music dive bar and how a serendipitous songwriting collaboration yielded 37 Top 40 country hits. Even more impressive, all 24 singles released between 1989 and 1996 charted snugly inside the Top Ten.

Along the well-trodden path, Nicholas also takes time to reveal what iconic British Invasion band influenced his decision to take up guitar when he was only seven years old and whether Black will commemorate the 25th anniversary of his triple platinum debut album, Killin' Time.

The Hayden Nicholas Interview, Part One

Did The Beatles influence you in any aspect?

The Beatles are the reason I started playing guitar in '64, like most of my generation. As albums became more available my interests grew into other rock acts. By the time the Beatles broke up, I was already into groups like Led Zeppelin and Cream etc., but Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road were huge influences on me…mainly in songwriting whereas Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and others were more of an influence on my guitar playing. Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed were guitar influences, too. The Beatles influenced everyone alive in the sixties and beyond…to this very day.

How did you meet Clint Black?

Perhaps a little back story is necessary first. I moved out to Southern California in the early '80s and played with various people. I had a little eight-channel home recording studio setup that I took with me. I taught guitar lessons, wrote songs, and made demos.

When my father got sick in 1984, I came back to Houston to be with my family before he passed away. I eventually had to start my career all over again there. I met Clint at the very beginning of 1987 during an inconsequential string of dates with some country band I was playing guitar with at the moment. I’d only been with the band for maybe a week or two – it wasn’t a permanent thing [laughs].

The band had a date booked at a club in Sugar Land, Texas, and we decided to split the bill with this coffee house singer. The club owner wanted a full band to support the singer so the audience could dance throughout. We were going to do half of our songs and half of his. We got together with this guy and did a rehearsal to see what we were going to do. Long story short…the singer was Clint.

During one of the intermissions, we kinda hit it off instantaneously. Clint talked about songwriting, and I told him I had a little studio in my garage where I’d been writing songs. He played me a song he had written a few years earlier called “Nobody’s Home.” I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a good country song’ [laughs].

I invited Clint over to my house. I played him some of the songs I'd been writing and recording, and he played me some of his, including “Nothing’s News.” I had a musical idea and he had a lyrical idea, and we sat down and wrote a Western Swing song in about 30 minutes. It actually ended up being the first cut on the Killin’ Time album – “Straight from the Factory.”

We wrote constantly together. Within a four or five month period of time we had composed nine or ten songs that we then recorded at my home studio on a half inch tape machine. We would mix the songs down to a quarter inch tape before making final cassette copies.

Basic tracks were cut first on acoustic guitars and a drum machine. Later I would overdub lead guitar and bass. We found Jeff Peterson when we decided we needed a steel guitar player. We’d buy him a six pack of beer for him to come over and play on a song [laughs].

That stockpile became our demo tape – basically the Killin’ Time album. The actual song "Killin’ Time" was a last minute addition. I have those master cassette tapes somewhere in my belongings. We’ve always joked that one day people will probably find them [laughs].

Our music evolved naturally. For awhile we functioned as a duo performing at coffee houses but we always wanted to play our songs with a band. As we booked shows on a somewhat larger scale in the Houston area, we completed our original band lineup with Dick Gay on drums, Jake Willemain on bass, and Jon Permenter on fiddle.

Within two years we had both a management deal and a record deal. When Killin’ Time came out on May 2, 1989, all five singles released from the record became incredibly successful [i.e. “A Better Man,” “Nobody’s Home,” “Walkin’ Away,” “Nothing’s News,” and the title cut]. It was like a roller coaster [laughs].

Is Clint going to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Killin’ Time?

We absolutely should recognize Killin’ Time. I think most everybody concurs. The album earned its spot in history and oughta be celebrated [Author’s Note: Killin’ Time spent an astonishing 195 weeks on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, easily earning its triple platinum status with 31 of those weeks perched at No. 1. Four singles from the LP climbed to No. 1, while a fifth stalled at a still-impressive No. 3]. I’ve repeatedly pushed the idea to Clint's management. Hopefully, we can really get something going.

Would it be a crazy idea if you performed the Killin’ Time album in its entirety at one or more shows?

That's a great idea and that's something that I’ve thought about as well. There has been talk with CMT about doing some type of taping for a television show or commemorative DVD – getting a bunch of different artists, friends, and fans together and celebrating. It'd be great to have a special that would talk about the album and the 25th anniversary and have us perform, most likely in Nashville. I know our fans would like that [laughs].

Who composes what?

Our songwriting is a true collaboration. I’ll have various ideas for songs – maybe a line or two of the verse or chorus. Eventually Clint and I get together. Clint will also have ideas, so we start putting music and words together. Over the course of a day or two we’ll have a song roughed out. There might be a few things we need to change over the next week. We’ll let the song be for a while and then come back.

Have you composed a song in the recording studio?

No. I know a lot of bands do it that way, but that never happened with us. We never booked time in a studio and jammed, hoping a song would develop. We were so focused on trying to do whatever song we were doing at the time. When that thing’s rattling through your head, there’s no room for another musical idea to pop up. But plenty of times there will be some riff or something that will come up. I’ll hang on to that idea, since it might find its way into something later.

When you and Clint have a song written and ready to record, do you present it to the band in the studio or do you demo it first?

Back in the old days we actually demoed them in my little home studio that I had in my garage. The studio was never really a working business – just mainly for me. I used it for approximately 15 years until I decided to dismantle it.

I’ve got some friends of mine that have a place out in the country with a little studio. I donated some of my consoles to them, and I can use their place when I need to. Clint’s got a really nice studio at his house, and that’s where we’ve been doing everything for a number of years.

Anyway, next we gather our demos and listen to them with a producer to determine if they are going to be the nine or ten songs to start with. Once we make our selection regarding the first track to record, everybody’s in the studio by that date. We write out a chart for it and start recording. There is always room for experimentation. It’s a process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

Can you write while you’re on tour?

Clint and I never really wrote on the road. We would take off for three or four days and go someplace quiet. We’re pretty much caught up song-wise today. We have written somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 unreleased songs since Drinkin' Songs and Other Logic appeared in 2005. Our overriding issue is trying to get the songs released on a label.

Nevertheless, I spend much of my traveling downtime writing. A great deal of my first novel, Ezekiel’s Choice [February 2013, Westbow Press], was written on the road. I just like to keep busy, and it’s the perfect opportunity to get some things like that done.

How would you characterize Clint’s personality?

Clint is a real jokester. He’s a ball of energy – especially when I first met him. He’s very ambitious and focused. He possessed a really clear vision of what he wanted to become in the music business. I’d spent years trying to make it – playing with various people.

When I met him, I saw something different. He was roughly 25 years old, and he’d been playing bars and coffee houses for a good seven or eight years by then, so he had a lot of experience. Not only was he good at what he did, he had that constant drive. He’ll always have talent – the whole package.

Memorizing lyrics has never been an issue with Clint. He’s almost got a photographic memory. He can hear a song once on the radio, and then he can sing it [laughs]. He had a notebook when I first met him containing two or three hundred pop, rock, and country songs. I mean everything. He was a James Taylor fan, Bob Seger, The Eagles…

Clint was doing an acoustic solo show which ultimately evolved into an acoustic duo when I joined. We were doing acoustic renditions of everything. He knew hundreds of songs, and the set list varied every night based on whatever he felt like doing.

  • DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Hayden Nicholas continues the tantalizing journey through his back pages in Part Two of the interview, entitled "Hold on Partner: The Day Clint Black Met the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers." The legendary movie cowboy had cut "Hold on Partner," a sprightly country-tinged ballad with Black, for the former's "Tribute" duets album. Nicholas later spoke one on one with Rogers during a fantastic evening at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Los Angeles in late 1991. His dream-come-true encounter has heretofore been unrevealed until now. Don't miss it!

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Further Reading: 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: Country singer T. Graham Brown found major success on Capitol Records in the late '80s with hit songs such as “Hell and High Water,” “Don’t Go To Strangers,” and the upbeat, groovin’ ode to an elusive girlfriend, “Darlene.” From moving to Nashville to sing demos, being dropped by Capitol after Garth Brooks became the next headline, kicking his alcohol addiction, battling bipolar disorder, ultimately writing the redemptive "Wine Into Water", and performing at the illustrious Bridgestone Arena tribute to George Jones, "Drowning in Memories with a Country Song's Best Friend," the most extensive interview of Brown's esteemed career, is coming up in the rear view mirror.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: John Denver will forever be remembered as the consummate singer-songwriter. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious entertainer possesses an incredible body of work with such landmark recordings as "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Back Home Again," "Rocky Mountain High," "Annie's Song," and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," all staples of early '70s AM radio. Denver's final pianist, Chris Nole, recently agreed to revisit his memorable relationship with the singer on the commemoration of his 70th birthday. Stick around as Nole discusses how he came to join Denver's band, what it was like to have a single rehearsal and then debut in front of thousands of fans, Denver's homespun sense of humor, whether the singer had any pre-show superstitions, their final conversation, and much more.

  • Exclusive Interview No. 3: Consecutive recipients of the Academy of Country Music’s Top Vocal Duo award, the husband and wife team of Thompson Square have staked their claim as country’s next big thing. Since their sophomore single, the ultra-catchy “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not,” stormed radio in 2010, the Gen-Xers have been living the good life, scoring one hit single after another and touring alongside mega country bro Luke Bryan. But not a day goes by when they don’t recall the agonizing 13 years spent soldiering amidst the trenches of Nashville's Music Row before a major record deal landed on their doorstep. In an exclusive interview entitled “Singin’ a Song, Still Livin’ the Dream: The Musical Roots of Thompson Square”, the duo waxes poetic on the roots of their raising, the moment when both realized singing was their true destiny, how fame threatens their sense of anonymity, what the ultimate perfect day – minus managers and publicists – might consist of, and loads more.

Exclusive Interview No. 4: 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.

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