Ask Clint Black what factor has made him a consistent country hitmaker for the past 12 years, and he points upward. "It's the hat," he says, grinning. "It's always been there." On Nov. 20, it's hats o

Ask Clint Black what factor has made him a consistent country hitmaker for the past 12 years, and he points upward. "It's the hat," he says, grinning. "It's always been there."

On Nov. 20, it's hats off to the much-heralded singer/songwriter as his longtime label, RCA, issues "Greatest Hits II," a collection of 16 tracks that scales the platinum-laden peaks of Black's career, from the 1989 No. 1 "Nothing's News" to his 1999 chart-topper, "When I Said I Do" with wife Lisa Hartman Black.

The set also includes four new tracks: his current hit duet with Lisa, "Easy for Me to Say" (No. 30 Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart); a lullaby to the couple's 6-month-old daughter, Lily Pearl, "Little Pearl and Lily's Lullaby"; a new, blues-inspired version of 1990's "Put Yourself in My Shoes"; and the sure-fire future single "Money or Love."

"These songs really capture a moment then and there," Black says. "I hadn't listened to some of the older tracks in a long time. When I hear them, I try to think in terms of my sound at the time. It's strange, but it's hard to listen to the older recordings and not be critical."

The other tracks gracing the album showcase a performer whose range of musical expression runs from high-class, strings-laden love songs to lowdown, foot-stomping pure country romps. They include '93's "When My Ship Comes In," '96's "One Emotion," and '98's "The Shoes You're Wearing" and "Nothin' but the Taillights" -- all No. 1 hits; also there are the top-10 duets "Still Holding On" from '97 with Martina McBride and "Been There" from '99 with Steve Wariner.

Notably, it took five albums and seven years to assemble Black's first collection of hits; the second comes five years later after just two additional albums.

"We weren't really planning to do the hits this time," Black explains, "but because of the baby, everybody around me agreed it'd be nice to just knock out a few new songs and worry about a full-fledged studio album next year."

The family influence was furthered with Black's second collaboration with Lisa, with whom he celebrates his 10th anniversary this year. The couple won the 2000 Academy of Country Music's vocal event award last year for "When I Said I Do." The story of how Black persuaded a reluctant Lisa -- who at one time had her own recording contract -- to sing with him is well-traveled. So you'd think that this time around, it would have been easier.

Instead, it was a real labor for her -- literally-because she went in to sing soon after delivering Lily by Cesarean section. Black says: "Her stomach muscles were stitched up, so she wasn't able to sing like she wanted to. And then we had to get a wardrobe together and shoot a video. She looked great, but boy, she wasn't too happy about that."

Black's other staple partner is songwriter Hayden Nicholas. Since Black's first album, 1989's "Killin' Time," which earned him the Country Music Association's Horizon Award, he has teamed almost exclusively with his friend of 15 years -- Black and Nicholas are closing in on some 100 shared compositions.

"We're not exactly [Bernie] Taupin and Elton John because we both write music and lyrics," Black says. "He has something that I don't and vice-versa. He learned music theory before he played, and I learned 'A, C, G, C, D' to play 'Redneck Mother,' so I could sing and play and figured out chords later. We have a great friendship and partnership."

Through the years that the two have been kicking out hits, Black has noted his evolution as a musician. "As a singer, I think I've become much stronger. As you move from album to album, you hear things that you change along the way." Black says that one of his strengths as a writer is the ability to channel various styles, keeping the material diverse. "Say, if I want a song to feel like something for Emmylou Harris, I start to write it for her, then I sing it."

Black is proudest, though, of his ever-maturing abilities as an instrumentalist. "I didn't used to expect as much from myself," Black says. "I'd play some rhythm guitar, but I'd always defer to Hayden or session players. Now, I've challenged myself to do some electric guitar, and I see a lot of growth. I'm playing stuff now that Hayden showed me years ago and I'd just laugh."

RCA Label Group chairman Joe Galante also acknowledges Black's progression over the years. "I think that Clint understands what his audience wants to hear from him, but he's also taken some chances musically over the last couple years and added a new twist to what he's doing. He really maintains integrity and substance with his craft."

And the hits just keep on coming. Black attributes his enduring success to the fact that he's not a one-trick pony. "I think things stay fresh because I have so many other things to occupy my time," he says. "I'll go out on the road and do 124 cities, then some TV and maybe a movie, then sit down to write an album. By that time, I've about forgotten how to do it."

While a tour is not planned to support "Greatest Hits II," Black participated in the Citizen Patriot Tour the week of Oct. 22, flying from Nashville to Germany, where he performed for U.S. troops stationed in four undisclosed locations.

CMT has plans for a Clint Black week, and the artist will make appearances on a host of late-night and morning talk shows. He sat in on CNN's Larry King Live Oct. 29, where he performed a new song that does not appear on the disc, "America, I Love You."

In addition, RCA will issue an enhanced version of "Greatest Hits II" that includes six minutes of backstage footage from his D'Lectrified tour, as well as computer wallpaper, a screensaver, and a link to clintblack.com, which is undergoing a major overhaul and is due to relaunch in the coming weeks.

For Black, the mission is far from over. "I've got big dreams," he says. "I'd like to write a song for a movie or do some scoring. Maybe do some things for other people's projects, like writing a song or directing a video. Things like that challenge me. If you're not going to jump out of airplanes with a parachute, you need those things."

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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