In Nashville, the joke is that it takes 10 years to build an overnight sensation. Only the joke is mostly true. Mostly. Just like every rule, there are exceptions. And there is fate.
Enter Clark Manson, the handsome young country boy from Covington, Ohio. A baseball-cap hiding thick waves honeyed by the sun, a golden glow, also courtesy of the sun, a warm and slightly bashful smile, Clark is the picture of the Heartland - wholesome, All-American and...given the opportunity...you would imagine he can be a healthy dose of trouble. The kind of trouble that makes you shake your finger in disapproval, while simultaneously chuckling at his charm.
And he’s talented, too, but not like many of his peers who come from long lines of musicians or who are schooled at their grandpa's knee. After realizing their toddler had memorized all the words to “Achy Breaky Heart,” Clark's parents educated him in music appreciation, which they did by hauling their son to every music experience in the area, whether fair, festival or full-blown George Strait concert. “There's a really big music festival just north of where I grew up called Country Concert in Ft. Loramie, Ohio,” Clark remembers. “It's been going on for 30-something years and they'll have all these big stars. And since I was a little kid, every summer my parents would take me up there. But when I was 5-years-old, my parents surprised me and took me to see George Strait because I was in love with him. We didn't have a lot of money, so we were in the nosebleed section, but ever since then I wanted to be George Strait.”
First they gave him a love of music, then, at the age of nine, they gave him a guitar. But Clark admits, they may not have realized what they were really doing. “I think they thought I'd play for a while then put it down, but I didn't,” he laughs. “I taught myself to play and by the time I was 12-years-old, I could play 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door,' or whatever those first three-chord songs are people learn.”
Clark reveals that being a singer wasn't on his agenda at first. Another kind of “gun” shared his passion and by the age of 14 he was traveling around the country as an expert marksman, eventually winning a national championship in skeet shooting. He smiles sheepishly and offers that although he considered that as a career, he wasn’t that good. But he also laughs when he confesses he wasn't a “guitar god” either. His omnipresent smile grows broader as he recalls, “I remember thinking, 'I'm really good at these three chords. I could probably write something.' So, I did and it was terrible.” But his passion for music and innate ability to turn a phrase inspired him to work on the craft, and while his parents encouraged college, they didn't discourage music either. So in addition to working for his dad, he spent two years at Wittenberg University and two more at Wright State University for Business Management while continuing to practice his music. Then fate stepped in.
“We had a little party in our dorm room and we were a little too loud, and the R.A. came in and she was like, 'You've got to come to my office tomorrow.' And when I did, she told me, 'I could write you up, but instead, I'm the head of the activities department. You've got to play a free show at this bar to make up for it.'” Clark became a repeat performer at the campus hang-out, building a loyal fan following and leading him to form a full band, with his hometown pal Nick Christian. Before they could process it, Clark and his friend were scheduling 150 shows a year around Ohio. “We had a bar that would hire us every night, so Monday we would play here, Tuesday we would play here and so on,” he explains. “It would be $100 a night, free food and free drinks, then it got up to $250 and I thought I had it made.” The local success was just the gentle kick Clark needed to send him to Nashville where he came and recorded a project of tunes co-written with another hometown pal, Dustin Blythe. An independent radio station in Lima added some of their tunes from his debut album, Running With the Night, into their rotation and that led to a meeting with another Buckeye, Todd Bolton, a booking agent for Variety Attractions. As fate would have it, Todd put Clark and his band on the bill for Country Concert.
He had come full circle.
Clark opened for artists like Cole Swindell, Dustin Lynch and Chase Rice during the event, setting attendance records for the side stage. “We had 10,000 people,” he laughs in disbelief, then adds, “They've already booked us for this year.”
But the visit to Nashville had whet his appetite for something else. He continued to keep one eye on the national country music scene, which pushed his songwriting to a new level. He speaks almost reverently as he remembers, “About three years ago, I was watching a segment of the CMA Songwriter's Series with Brett James, Craig Wiseman, Wendell Mobley, Matraca Berg and Kenny Chesney. I became a big fan of Brett’s because his voice is awesome and he wrote 'You Save Me,' which is one of my favorite songs. I had to find out every song he wrote. To this day, I'll Google a songwriter and end up spending hours watching their videos. I just did that with Craig’s.”
The time was right. “I still remember the conversation, going into my dad's office and saying, 'I think I'm ready to try music full time,'” he says. Dad encouraged him to go for it. And four months after landing in Nashville, Clark had secured publishing, management and was building on an already established fan base with an ever-expanding tour schedule. Not exactly overnight, but about as close as it comes.
Young and enthusiastic, he believes his sound and writing is still evolving. “I'm still learning. I think I just now got to the point I know what I want to be and who I am,” he says. But he also says his music is based on real events. He grins as he describes it, “Everything that I try to talk about, I want to make sure it's something that I've done before or appeals to a lot of people. I'm not a downer, I'm a really happy person, so it's going to be hard to get me to cut a ballad. I'm sure I'll record a nice love song though, but he stuff we're about to put out, the newer stuff we're working on is that summertime, feel good, arena kind of sound that when you hear it, you're ready to party, you're ready to do something fun.”
The kind of fun that translates to his sold-out concerts. “Our live show, I think, is unparalleled in a lot of ways,” he says with a hint of pride. “ A lot of people leave our shows and they're like, 'What just happened?' Not just because of me. My band and I have such great chemistry and everything that is happening on stage is real. Me and my guys really love what we do. Our show is never the same because we feed off of the crowd. Every time I go into write, I have that in the back of my mind.”
Relatively speaking, he's still fresh to Nashville, but his resume' speaks to that of someone with years of experience, like his idol, George Strait. So, how does Clark think he is measuring up to the one who set the standard for country music?
Clark thoughtfully answers, “I think the way that he was so simple. There was nothing fancy or glittery about George Strait, he was just George Strait. Just the way he kept his family close. We grew up team-roping, too, so I could always relate to what he does and I feel like sometimes you can't always do that with artists. So, I try to be like him in that way. His music always had a lyric that had a significance. It always made you feel an emotion. No one can come out and just stand there and sing a George Strait song, but the things I can take away from him are more as a person than as an artist.”
Maybe having a career like George Strait's is a lofty goal, but for Clark, whose goals seemed to be achieved before he could even set them, it also seems completely possible.