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Talkin’ about Elvis, Merle Haggard, imaginary girls, and ‘Like the Rain’

Clint Black’s lead guitarist Hayden Nicholas dishes on growing up hearing Elvis Presley in West Texas, collaborating twice with Merle Haggard, co-writing Black’s number one hit “Like the Rain,” and more in a rollicking interview. Seen above, a pink Cadillac passes a hitchhiking Black in this alternate still taken during the album cover photo shoot for “Nothin’ on but the Taillights,” the seventh studio LP released by the country music troubadour on July 29, 1997. Image Credit: Photography by Timothy White

Over the course of a free-wheeling, exclusive interview picking up steam today, Hayden Nicholas, best known as singing cowboy Clint Black’s principle songwriting compadre, lead guitarist, and backing vocalist, waxes poetic on his parents’ deep-rooted appreciation for Elvis Presley — Jim and Beth Nicholas attended an adrenaline-soaked Presley show in Odessa, Texas, just one year before their son’s birth — the first song that he ever penned about an imaginary girl named “Rose Lee,” and encountering the notoriously hard-to-pin-down Kennedy Center inductee Merle Haggard.

In case you didn’t know, Black is a best-selling, bro-country eschewing new traditionalist whose debut single, “A Better Man,” went all the way to No. 1 in 1989. Raised in Houston, the songwriter and occasional actor continued to rule the charts throughout the subsequent decade, giving Garth Brooks a pistol-packin’ run for his money with enduring compositions such as “We Tell Ourselves,” “A Good Run of Bad Luck,” “One Emotion,” “Summer’s Comin’”, and “The Shoes You’re Wearing.”

Nicholas is incidentally the co-writer of all those afore-mentioned compositions. The soft-spoken, unpretentious Fender Telecaster guitar slinger hailing from East Texas has penned somewhere in the neighborhood of 71 released compositions with his buddy.

Of particular merit is the crescendo-driven ballad “Like the Rain.” Nominated for a Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the 1997 Grammy Awards, the song spent 20 weeks on Billboard, idling comfortably in the rare numero uno slot for three weeks.

Stick around as Nicholas takes you on a bird’s eye journey behind the emotional yin and yang songwriting session for “Like the Rain” as he visited the California home of then-newlyweds Black and actress Lisa Hartman.

The battle-scarred road warriors can be found gamely crisscrossing American cities on a moderate touring schedule supporting On Purpose, Black’s long-gestating studio album of all-new material that followed the critically-acclaimed but commercial misstep Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, which dropped 10 years earlier in 2005.

Merle Haggard contemplates life over breakfast, coffee, and a cigarette inside his Palo Cedro, California, home in 1979. Image Credit: Photography by Roger Ressmeyer / Getty Images

The Hayden Nicholas Interview, Part One

Did you have an opportunity to do any writing sessions with the late Merle Haggard?

Here’s what the deal was with Merle. We did a bunch of tour dates together in 1991 and got to spend time with one another. I don’t know all the details, but Merle brought a half-finished tune to Clint, which ultimately became “Untanglin’ My Mind”[i.e. the lead single on Black’s No. 4 C&W One Emotion album, released in October 1994].

Clint stayed in touch with Merle, and he mentioned that he’d like to write something with us. Maybe a year or two before the recording of our Christmas album [Looking for Christmas, October 1995], Clint and I had pretty much finished writing a song intended for that album called “The Kid” [No. 67 C&W].

We thought, ‘Man, this is kind of what we think is a Merle Haggard song,’ so we mailed our bits and pieces to him. Merle soon got back in touch with us and said, “Why don’t you say this instead of that?” It was like one word that he changed [laughs]. Actually it was a good idea, and it did make the song seem better.

It wasn’t like Clint, Merle, and I sat down in a room together and wrote. It would have been hard to have cornered Merle for anything like that, especially back then. He was just a different kind of guy. He was always hard to find.

Merle’s manager was always running around panicking looking for him before the show. Sometimes he’d be hiding in our dressing room getting a drink. Finally his manager would come in all sweaty and say, “Well there you are” [laughs]. The band’s already out there playing, the crowd’s already clapping, and they’re waiting for Merle to come on.

It was like that many nights. Merle was very unpredictable. If you said, “Hey, let’s meet on Saturday” — that probably wasn’t gonna happen. “The Kid” was the only song that I got to collaborate on with Merle [Author’s Note: A riveting conversation between this writer and the “If We Make It Through December” tune-smith, entitled “Still Holding His Mud: A Day in the Life of ‘Struggling’ Guitarist Merle Haggard“, is only a click away].

Acclaimed lead guitarist Scotty Moore and underrated rhythm player Elvis Presley are dynamite during a July 31, 1955 concert at the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory in Tampa, Florida. A cropped version appeared as the iconic cover of Presley’s debut LP. Image Credit: Photography by William V. “Red” Robertson / Elvis Presley Enterprises

Are you an Elvis Presley fan?

Yeah. I was born in 1956, so I was more in the generation of the Beatles and the British Invasion onslaught. The Beatles kinda overshadowed Elvis to me.

My parents, Jim and Beth, definitely were Elvis fans. They were from West Texas. Based on what my parents have told me, the first concert I attended was an Elvis concert in Odessa, Texas, at the Ector County Auditorium, host of the Permian Basin International Oil Show. It’s funny because we’ve actually played there several times over the years.

That would have been when Elvis was on Sun Records and before he went into the Army [Author’s Note: Elvis visited Odessa a total of five times, all during 1955 except for a token show decades later in 1976. The Odessa High School hosted most of the diamond-selling artist’s 1955 performances except for an April 1 concert at the Ector County Coliseum. Supporting Elvis was lead guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, Louisiana Hayride pianist Floyd Cramer, and a local young man on drums. Sponsored by the Voting Home Owners Club, 850 tickets were sold according to an Odessa record shop owner who submitted an account to Billboard]. I must have been in the womb at the ’55 show!

My parents really enjoyed Elvis even through his later years. We always had lots of Elvis records. My dad especially liked the gospel records that he did [e.g. His Hand in Mine, How Great Thou Art]. My favorites tend to fall in the early Elvis category — songs like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

Future hit country music songwriter-lead guitarist Hayden Nicholas is pictured at top right in this cute vintage 1964 shot of his cub scout den. Nicholas joined Clint Black for his 1989 debut album, “Killin’ Time,” and has remained a mainstay ever since. Image Credit: Courtesy of Hayden Nicholas

Do you recall the first song that you wrote?

Yeah, I do actually. I was 11 or 12 years old. It was with my buddy, Kris Drosche, who was not really a musician. It was a song called “Rose Lee” about some imaginary girl [laughs]. I don’t know what propelled us to do it. I remember we sang it in front of our parents. I played acoustic guitar.

It was the first time where I had a beginning, middle, and end of a song. I didn’t really keep going with songwriting. I was more interested in playing guitar. I was in bands and did all of that, but I would always have a song or two that I was working on. By the time I got into my early twenties, I really started going at songwriting full on.

Is there a demo?

No, I couldn’t even tell you how it goes. Many years ago I found a little piece of notebook paper containing the lyrics in a folder, which I guess my mom had kept for me. I’ve sadly lost it now.

You oughta try to re-record “Rose Lee” solo with just a guitar and just throw it up on YouTube or your official Facebook. That would be pretty cool.

I would if I could remember how it went!

Sporting a black pull-over shirt, soft-spoken Fender Telecaster maestro Hayden Nicholas is cool and collected on Clint Black’s tour bus after a sold out show in Anderson, Indiana, on May 16, 2014. Image Credit: Photography by Cee Cee DeHart

What is the story behind “Like the Rain,” a No. 1 single originally released on the Greatest Hits album in 1996 and nominated for a Grammy in the Best Male Country Vocal Performance category?

It’s been a long time ago, but I remember that I had the music to that. I visited Clint for a songwriting session and brought three or four song ideas. “Like the Rain” was one of them. He and Lisa had been married for a year or so and were living in her house in California.

Somehow the idea for the chorus emerged as Clint was jotting down ideas in his notebook. I like the rain every once in awhile — I like changing seasons. I was never one that just wants a constantly perfect, beautiful day. Clint said, “Really? I always get depressed when it rains.” He viewed rain as more of a moody thing.

Lisa was walking into the room, so Clint asked her what she thought of the rain. She thought for a second and replied, “I like the rain, too.” He was like, ‘Really?’ We started coming up with the metaphor for that relationship and that’s how it came about.

There have been some covers of “Like the Rain.” A British, kinda pop band did a version of it years ago. We also get tapes that folks send us. It was interesting to see how the song works in all those different musical formats.

An up close portrait of handsomely toned country music singer Clint Black inside the Distinctive Assets Lounge at the Country Music Awards on May 26, 2004 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image Credit: Photography by Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
Country music artist Clint Black rips out a harmonica solo while songwriting buddy Hayden Nicholas ably plays acoustic guitar during a rare, scaled-back, acoustic-themed show at the American Music Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on March 30, 2014. Image Credit: Courtesy of Hayden Nicholas
“Like the rain, always calling for you, I’m falling for you now:” Along with virtuoso guitar picker Hayden Nicholas, click to see Clint Black unleash his 10th number one country single on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on September 23, 1996. Video Credit: NBCUniversal / Big Dog Productions

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