George Strait’s album Blue Clear Sky, featuring the hit single of the same name, turns a cool 25 this year. Blue Clear Sky hit stores and retail outlets April 23, 1996, and moved swiftly up the charts, reaching No. 1 on May 11, giving the smooth-singing cowboy an even dozen chart-topping albums at that juncture of his career. Considered a prime example of Strait’s versatility as a vocalist, the record captured the 1996 CMA Award for Album of the Year.
To lend some weight and insight into the recording of Blue Clear Sky, the album’s producer Tony Brown shares some of his recollections with Sounds Like Nashville. And what’s behind that oddly-worded title track? One of the song’s co-writers, the ebullient and witty Bob DiPiero, lays out the story of the film character who inspired the title, and how he had to convince a befuddled Strait not to change it.
STRAIT IN THE STUDIO
Strait’s studio persona belies his prevailing image of a reserved and shy cowboy. Strait truly is one of the more enigmatic stars to emerge from country, or any other genre of entertainment for that matter. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he seldom grants interviews, more out of a protection of his privacy than an act of antagonism, and doesn’t take part in hyping himself on talk shows or other media platforms. But that’s not to imply that Strait is a moody type, void of any sense of humor or lacking any personal charisma.
As Tony Brown saw first-hand, Strait proved an amiable good fellow in the studio, embracing the musicians who played on his records as tightly as family. “Cutting his records was lots of fun,” Brown tells Sounds like Nashville. “He would banter with the studio musicians and have a good time with them. This was my fourth album working with George – the first was Pure Country, and then Easy Come, Easy Go, and Lead On – and we used a lot of the same musicians for each record. So, they all got to know each other and it was like hanging out with George’s road band when we were in the studio. We recorded Blue Clear Sky at Emerald Studios in Nashville.”
The approach to the album boiled down to a simple formula: build on the momentum of Strait’s previous album, 1994’s Lead On, which had gone No. 1. “We were on a really good roll with George,” Brown recalls. “He could do no wrong. It all came down to analyzing the songs and coming up with the right ones for the album. When I started working with George, I think I was a little more contemporary than [previous producer] Jimmy Bowen, in terms of the songs we picked. George draws on that Texas tradition where somebody like an Alan Jackson draws more on the Southern tradition. I started picking up on that, so the songs we chose were a little bit edgier.” Brown estimates that he and Strait listened to around 1500 songs for the album, eventually narrowing that down to 20 and then down to the final 10 that made the record.
The tunes that survived the cut represented a cross section of styles that played right into the Strait wheelhouse. In keeping with Strait’s Western image, the cowboy lament “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” was made for Strait’s plaintive vocal. The album also included a swing tune, “I Ain’t Never Seen No One Like You,” a snappy number co-written by Mark Chesnutt, and a soft, jazzy selection, “Need I Say More,” on which Strait romantically croons to the heavens. Strait was an avowed fan of both Western swing and jazz.
“George really put a lot of thought into the records he made,” says Brown. “He always wanted something old-timey like a swing tune or a fiddle song. It was so much fun to capture that atmosphere on a song like ‘I Ain’t Never Seen No One Like You.’ We had so many great songs from this album,” Brown continues. “I think ‘I Can Still Make Cheyenne’ was perfect for George. People tell me that it is still one of their favorite George songs. We had a big hit with that and ‘Carried Away,’ which is so well-written.”
Then, there’s that bouncy, unbelievably catchy title track, which has a fascinating backstory of its own. The unique title came to songwriter Bob DiPiero, who wrote the song with Mark D. Sanders and John Jarrard, courtesy of a popular movie. But that weird juxtaposition of words, “Blue Clear Sky,” had to be explained to his co-writers and, eventually, to Strait himself.
The inspiration for that line took shape when DiPiero saw the award-winning movie Forrest Gump in a local Nashville theater. “There was a scene in the movie where Forrest was talking about his girlfriend Jenny,” DiPiero tells Sounds Like Nashville. “He said something along the lines of, ‘Jenny was gone and all of a sudden out of the blue clear sky I get a letter from her.’ So, ‘Blue Clear Sky,’ I thought that was odd but cool and so I filed it away in my odd but cool mental file.” The following day, DiPiero had a writing appointment with Sanders and Jarrard and ran the idea for “Blue Clear Sky” by them. He was apparently prepared for their response.
“Both of them said in unison, ‘That’s backwards!’ People don’t say ‘blue clear sky,’ they say ‘clear blue sky,’” DiPiero recalls. He ran through the Forrest Gump scenario for his writing partners, agreeing that the phrasing was indeed out of kilter. “But I said, ‘That’s why it’s cool.’ So, we wrote the song with ‘Blue Clear Sky’ as the title.”
DiPiero’s collaborators weren’t alone in their confusion about the title. Strait also had to be convinced about the “cool” factor in that backwards terminology. He even spoke to DiPiero about changing the title. The songwriter remembers their momentous conversation quite, well, clearly. “Tony Brown called me from the studio asking that the title be changed to ‘Clear Blue Sky,’ so I told him about going to see Forrest Gump and hearing Forrest say [the line],” DiPiero says. “Tony passes the phone and a voice comes on and says, ‘Hey! Where you from?’ It was Strait himself! He said, ‘I’m from Texas, and in Texas we say clear blue sky. Don’t you think that’s what it should be called?’ So, I told him the Forrest Gump story.”
Strait paused for what must have seemed a lifetime. Finally, he asked DiPiero, “So, do you think there’s any Gumpsters out there?” DiPiero replied. “Hell, yeah! The [theater] was packed with Gumpsters. They were already lining up for the next show.” DiPiero then asked Strait, “So what do you think you’re gonna do, George?” And DiPiero got his answer, in pure, unencumbered Strait style. “He said, ‘Well…. I guess we’ll be Gumpsters then.’ Odd, but so cool,” DiPiero concludes. ‘
There’s an additional footnote to the story, as DiPiero relates. “I saw [Strait] about a year later coming out of a Nashville studio,” he recalls. “He told me he had tried to sing the song as ‘clear blue sky’ but it just didn’t work as well.” DiPiero can certainly thank himself for sticking to his guns. The “Blue Clear Sky” single was released in March of 1996, about a month prior to the album, and went on to become a two-week No. 1. “It is still alive and well and living on the radio and streaming,” DiPiero says. “To my ear, it still has a timeless quality.”
Blue Clear Sky yielded four hit singles, beginning with the chart-topping title cut. The follow-up single, “Carried Away,” became Strait’s 30th No. 1, staying at that lofty spot for three weeks, while “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” peaked at No. 4. Only one single, “King of the Mountain,” failed to hit Top 10. On the strength of the album’s success, Strait cruised to his third CMA Male Vocalist of the Year title. Blue Clear Sky has sold more than three million copies since its release.
“I did 19 albums with George and I have always thought this was one of the better ones,” assesses Tony Brown. “It really showed what a great communicator he was with a song, and also how versatile he could be. People tend to think that what George does is easy, but that’s because he makes it look easy. Throughout my career,” Brown sums up, “I always thought how lucky I was to be producing George Strait. Blue Clear Sky was definitely one of my favorites.”