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Clint Daniels

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Listens to Merle Haggard and George Jones in his spare time." Six years ago, that comment appeared under Clint Daniels' photo in his high school yearbook. Now, with the release of Clint Daniels, his debut for Arista/Nashville, the 24-year-old Floridian brightens and extends the tradition of honest country. Singing his songs in a thoughtful baritone that combines the energy of a newcomer with the resonance of an old master, Daniels offers his own version of a brand of music that always called his name since growing up in Lynn Haven, a suburb of Panama City. As a child he rode horses with his dad in the rural countryside of the Florida panhandle where, as he describes, "There's a lot of space and horses. You'll also find more peanuts and cotton than anything else. It's only when you go south that things start turning into what popularly gets thought of as Florida."

For Daniels, the beach scene of convertibles blaring Def Leppard was OK. But even as a teenager, he felt drawn to the surrounding area of Sparkleberry Hill, which is near Alabama and what he considers the Florida hill country. "We'd go way up there, as far as you could go," Daniels remembers, "about 40 miles north, to Washington County. Everybody loved the big, gigantic hills there." They provided an "otherworldly" contrast to the ocean, which Florida natives often tire of. "We'd build a fire, and sit around and play country music, just all these high school kids. I had first been there with my family when I was younger. We'd go camping there and fishing in the nearby pond. When I got a little older it was the only place I could go that still had untouched trees, it's a real peaceful place. I'd take a few friends and we'd just play our guitars and jam by the fireside."

Uncut country, tugging at the heart and spinning off the strings: Every time Clint Daniels turned around, there it was. He was the younger child of a construction painter and a mother who worked at home. "My daddy played guitar and my sister sang," Daniels remembers. "We'd always have our little weekend get-togethers where we'd sit around and play. Eventually, that led to playing in church, too." Daniels liked what he heard -- a lot. "I guess I was about 12 when I grabbed that guitar, and after that I didn't do much else. I'd go home from school, lock myself in the bedroom and listen to those old Haggard records on vinyl and play along." Of course he heard rock and pop and dance music and the rest of it. But country fed him, sustained him, as it does now. "I don't have tunnel vision about it," he says. "It's just that country is where my heart is. Without it, I'd be unhappy. It's my speed."

He sang in local bands, sneaking into out-of-the-way Panama City dives, consistently the only under-age guy on stage. After high school, trying his luck in Nashville seemed like an inevitability; "I had to go," Daniels remembers. He got in his truck and drove to Nashville where, like a lot of aspiring artists, he played and wrote around before moving back home. But Daniels kept returning.

One day, during one of his many visits to Nashville, he found himself in a recording studio leisurely rehearsing a song he'd written when in walked an A&R executive from Arista/Nashville. "He came in while I was working," Daniels recalls. "Someone said, 'Play him your song.' And obviously, I was nervous; he's an A&R guy from a label! I played him the song. He said, 'Man, that's really great. You think you'd be interested in playing for our A&R staff?' And in my mind I was thinking, 'Are you kidding!' but I actually said, 'Well...yes...I guess I could do that...' I mean, what do you say? I had gone in there believing I was just going to sing a vocal on a demo. What a day it turned out to be!"

In a whirlwind turn of events, Daniels ended up playing for the Arista/Nashville A&R staff that same afternoon. "I wasn't living in Nashville at the time; I was only in for three days to do a session. I wound up staying four more days, because there were different people from the company I had to see. I called my parents and my girlfriend. I thought I would go crazy waiting to find out what came next!"

Eventually, Arista representatives flew to Florida to see Daniels perform. The club he was scheduled to appear in nearly burned down during a rehearsal. "All of a sudden, you heard this sizzle and the lights start flickering. The door slams open and a woman yells 'You all get out of here! You all get out of here!' And I'm saying to myself, 'Please don't let this building catch on fire, not this week." The fire was extinguished, Arista was still able to see him perform and the rest is history.

Clint Daniels is an impressive introduction to both Daniels and his songs, all but three of which he co-wrote. It's full of classic-tinged tunes like "Fool's Progress," the lead single, the kind of elegantly turned confession that can't be faked. In the up-tempo "Any Better than This, " Daniels walks through Wal-Mart, foolishly holding his girlfriend's purse, later complaining that these days his life's all mushy movies and lost sleep -- "But man," he explains, "I gotta tell you it's worth it/For her kiss." On "Wish It Was as Easy," a subtle ballad that smolders, he falls on harder times, cutting to the heart of the matter, sighing "It would be nice at the snap of a finger/Simply to erase your memory," but of course he can't.

All of this is done in a confidently alert baritone, agile and alive with rich natural tonalities, able to lay back without sacrificing intensity. This is true whether Daniels counts romantic blessings on "A Girl Like That" or champions life, love and laughter on "When I Grow Up." For all his composure, he's always ready just to throw back his head and sing, as on the searching ballad "Another Me For You" and on "Long Way Down," with its deep-mountain gait. On "Swing Through Dallas," the thought of a night on the Texas town thrills him so much he's even ready to deal with his in-laws. And then there are Daniels' two show-stopper finales: the deliberate "Going Down Hard," with its magnificent "There ain't no song in this guitar" opening, as well as "If I Stay," which sways with the moving-brush cool of '60s pop-country.

On Clint Daniels, country is a mighty definite place, but it's never stuck there. "I don't want people to forget that this is country music, " he says. "It doesn't always have to have a steel-guitar or cry-in-your-beer lyric, its okay to have something new. But Merle and George were always in my house and they taught me that you don't have to be right on the traditional fence the whole time. I think being true to who you are is what really counts."

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