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Clay Blaker: just another fine Texas country boy

By Joel Bernstein, January 2001

Texas may be the "Lone Star State" in other respects, but in country music, it has produced a galaxy of stars both past and present. The state is so big that it no longer feels a need to share its stars with the rest of the nation.

There are a number of artists who are huge in Texas without being heard of elsewhere. The Dixie Chicks were Dallas' favorite country act for five years before becoming world-renowned, and Pat Green currently sells more records than many major label Nashville acts. It's enough to make you wonder why Texas doesn't just secede.

They probably figure that as long as the rest of us are willing to let Texans lead the nation on a regular basis, it's worth their while to stay with the union despite its taste in music.

In the midst of this self-contained Texas music uprising sits Clay Blaker. He is a singer, bandleader, songwriter and producer who's had a successful career while remaining unknown to the average non-Texan.

He's had a number of his songs recorded by old pal George Strait and other major artists like Mark Chesnutt and Clay Walker as well. He has just released his fifth album, "Welcome To The Wasteland," although it's only his second with national distribution.

"Whenever mainstream country goes down the tubes, some new scene springs up in Texas." is Blaker's assessment of the current situation.

Blaker isn't as geographically insulated as many Texans, having also lived in Hawaii and California.

"My dad had a surfboard manufacturing company in Texas," says Blaker, who assures that there really is surfing in Texas, and pretty good at that - especially a few days before a hurricane hits. "He had to come (to Hawaii) a lot on business, and he fell in love with the place. They finally moved out here when I was about 20." That was in the early '70's.

After a few years in Hawaii, Blaker moved to California and started a band there.

"When I first got there, it was the tail end of the big country-rock scene. There was a cool little scene. All of a sudden, disco fever came along. They started tearing the stages out of these cool venues. That's when I said 'Boys, it's time to go back to Texas'."

Blaker landed in Houston, where he was based for years before moving to his current home near San Antonio.

As Blaker puts it, "Texas has always been a foothold to live music and not just country. A lot of old venues and dance halls have been in operation for 80-100 years. We were real fortunate. It was the start of the progressive country scene here. For about eight years, you could work 300 days a year just in Texas for good money. Then that scene wore down. The copycats came out. People burn out after a while."

"I just kept doing what I'd been doing all along. I wasn't working as much, but I was ready to not work as much. 300 dates a year is pretty much a burnout. I started working better dates, trying to concentrate my audience into better venues. I still do about 100 dates a year, mostly in Texas."

One of the people Blaker worked with in those early days was George Strait. "We toured together a lot. We liked each other's music. I helped him get some gigs around Houston. He helped me get work in central Texas. When he got his deal, he didn't forget about me."

Strait recorded one of Blaker's songs ("The Only Thing I Have Left," also later done by Tim McGraw) on his second album, and has recorded at least five others since.

"I thought (Strait) definitely had the potential (to be a star). I thought he had what it took. It's hard to imagine someone you know making it real big."

One of those songs Strait recorded, "We Must Be Lovin' Right," later gave Blaker his biggest thrill as a songwriter when the song was recorded by Barbra Streisand.

"The way I heard the story," Blaker relates "(Streisand's husband) James Brolin was playing Strait's album. She heard the song and liked it enough to put it on her next album. That album was all love songs, so it fit right in."

The song was a co-write with Roger Brown. "Roger writes a real jazzy kind of melody. It really fit her." Brown, who put out an EP on Decca shortly before the label folded, is a frequent collaborator.

Another frequent writing partner is Jim Lauderdale. Blaker has worked with Lauderdale enough that Lauderdale's distinctive rhythms crop up even on some of Blaker's own tunes.

"His publisher introduced us at a showcase in Nashville. We'd keep running into each other in strange places - on an airplane, at a festival in Switzerland - and at some point after a couple of years we decided to write together. The first couple of things we wrote together got cut. He's such an incredible talent. He's such a different style of writer. He always takes you to a place you've never been before as a songwriter. When we work together, I contribute more of the lyrics and him more of the melody. When I write with other people, sometimes it's just the opposite. His melodies are so distinct. I was a big fan of his music before I even met him. His melodies are almost unmistakable."

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