When you get to the end, it’s good to look back and see where you started. That’s what Delbert McClinton has done this year. Even as the 81-year-old Texan was announcing he was retiring from the road, he released an album devoted to his earliest musical influences.
He’s not saying he’ll never perform live from now on. What he’s saying is that he’ll never again go out on tour for weeks at a time. No more long trips on the interstates in a van or bus, no more impersonal hotels and franchise restaurants, no more efforts to rouse an 81-year-old body that’s had too little sleep for one more show.
Instead he’s going to spend more time at his current home in Nashville, working on special projects like his newest album, Outdated Emotion. Eleven of the 16 tracks are songs that had a profound impact on McClinton growing up in Lubbock and Fort Worth. It was those beginnings that led to more than 20 studio albums, four Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association and recordings of his songs by George Strait, Waylon Jennings and Tanya Tucker.
At the core of his new album are three songs originally recorded by Jimmy Reed and three by Hank Williams. For it’s that mixture of blues and country — filtered through a West Texas sensibility — that’s distinguished McClinton’s music for his past 64 years as a professional musician.
“Hank and Jimmy were just so incredibly real — in their personas as in their music,” McClinton says over the phone from Nashville. “Hank was playing the white man’s blues, and Jimmy Reed the black man’s blues. At the bottom, it was all the blues, and I love the blues. Today a lot of people say they play the blues, but it’s not the blues I love. I know when a piece of music moves me inside, and if it does, I’m all in. It’s all about finding the essence of the pocket.”
The album’s rainbow-colored cover resembles those concert posters once stapled to telephone poles everywhere, with the steely gaze of the young McClinton staring out from a show tuxedo. The title, Outdated Emotion, comes from the singer’s current frustration that the music exemplified by Williams and Reed is no longer appreciated. It can still deliver a powerful impact, he argues, but it’s gone out of fashion; people don’t want to hear it. The emotion is still there, but it’s passed its retail expiration date.
McClinton never got to play with Williams. The youngster had recently turned 12 when the country star died on the first day of 1953. But McClinton did get to play with Reed a bunch of times. He was 11 when his family moved from the flatland cotton fields of Lubbock to the bustling cowtown of Fort Worth, where Delbert’s dad worked on the Rock Island Railroad.
“That was a whole different deal,” McClinton remembers. “I became aware of KNOK radio, a black station out of Dallas. Once you hear B.B. King after you’ve been listening to Patti Page, you don’t go back to Patti Page. My mother’s sister had all these race records; I’d stop by and listen to them. It turned something on inside you. You can’t not feel it when B.B. King sings ‘I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.’”
He had a cheap acoustic Kay guitar, but the neck was so bowed he couldn’t tune it. But when he won $100 at a talent contest by singing Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright Mama” (written by bluesman Arthur Crudup) and Tommy Sands’ “Going Steady,” McClinton bought a mahogany guitar he could actually play. By the time he was 15, he was leading a band at Jack’s Place, a cavernous dancehall in nearby Mansfield, Texas. A big neon sign of a jackass stood on the roof. If the jackass was kicking, everything was cool. If it wasn’t, it meant the dancehall had gotten a tip that the police would raid the joint that night and perhaps you should stay away.
“I remember when I first heard Jimmy Reed’s ‘Honest I Do,’” McClinton says. “Driving to a band rehearsal, I’d stopped at a light when I heard that cymbal crash, and it set my world on fire. At that moment I became the world’s biggest Jimmy Reed fan. It perked up something inside me I didn’t even know was there. People try to play Jimmy Reed music, and they think it’s so simple, but it’s not. It sounds like it’s going to collapse at any moment, but it doesn’t. If it’s done right, people can’t help but move to it.”
Reed played harmonica as well as guitar, so McClinton taught himself to do the same. Once the young Texan’s group became the house band at Jack’s, they’d back up all the blues singers passing through: Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King — and Reed.
“We knew all his music because we loved it so much,” McClinton explains. “He was so impressed that he took us up to this black club in Lawton, Oklahoma. I asked a lot of questions: How do you do this? How do you do that? Once we played with both Jimmy and Buster Brown, and I sat with them in the manager’s office. I couldn’t figure out how Buster sang that first note on ‘Fannie Mae,’ so he reared back and belted it out like a field holler. But I also learned that you shouldn’t try to drink with two old black guys. They had a bottle of Old Grand-D, and I missed the show after getting sick and stupid.”
But it wasn’t just the black blues that young McClinton liked. As a youngster back in Lubbock, his parents used to drive out past the county line to the Cotton Club where you could buy a legal drink and dance to Bob Wills.
“The kids would play outside while our parents were inside dancing,” he recalls. “We’d have clod fights out in the cotton fields. Sometimes I’d look in through the window, and the music stirred me more than I realized at the time. The innocence of that music … you don’t find much anymore. A lot of people my age from the South love the same music I do, because they were exposed to it. Hank Williams is the top shelf; no one’s overcome him yet. His music seems incredibly simple, but it’s not. It got in my blood, and I wanted more of that.”
The deceptive ease of Reed’s and Williams’ songwriting convinced the teenaged McClinton to try his own hand at the game. He soon learned it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and one had to put the time in with the guitar and notebook to come up with anything worthwhile. “You can’t wait for lightning to strike,” he says. “You have to be the lightning.”
Then, as now, Fort Worth wasn’t a music business town. Back then Major Bill Smith, “a red-faced guy who always said, ‘Everything’s gonna be awesome,’” McClinton recalls, was the only guy in town making records. The teenager played on as many of those sessions as he could, whether he was the front man or not. That’s how he wound up playing harmonica on a four-song session by local hero Bruce Channel.
“Major Bill said ‘Dream Girl’ was going to be the A-side,” McClinton remembers, “and we told him, ‘Are you crazy? ‘Hey, Baby’ is the hit.’ When his nemesis, Houston’s Huey Meaux, offered $500 for half the song, Bill knew he had something. It went to No. 1 in America and was a huge hit in Europe, where it’s still played at soccer matches.”
When Channel was invited to England to be part of a 1962 package tour, he insisted that McClinton come along to play the song’s signature harp lick. The sidekick played three songs, then brought Channel out to play the hit to a roar of screaming girls. On one date, the opening acts included an obscure band called the Beatles. John Lennon later credited his harmonica playing on “Love Me Do” to McClinton.
“People always ask me about it,” McClinton says, “but they were just another band. There was no reason to take notes. John took me out in London one night. Every place we went to was down an alley, through a tunnel and up a flight of stairs. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. It was like the beatnik days; we were all going to change the world at that time. We talked about harps, girls, records; it was two guys out on the town having a good time.”
Gary Nicholson, who’s had more than 500 of his songs recorded by artists ranging from B.B. King and Ringo Starr to George Strait and Waylon Jennings, is nine years younger than McClinton. Nicholson grew up in Garland, a suburb of Dallas, and he got his start leading the Untouchables at the Cellar in Fort Worth. It was the bottom rung on the musical ladder — the interior was painted black and the waitresses wore bras and panties — but it was a place to learn one’s craft.
“Delbert was a local hero,” Nicholson says over the phone from a traffic jam on I-35 in Austin. “Everyone loved him. He had a local hit, ‘If You Really Want Me To, I’ll Go,’ the only song by a white guy ever played on the local black station. He was backing up Jimmy Reed; he knew T-Bone Walker. You don’t realize it when it’s happening, but looking back on it, Fort Worth was a great place to start in music. I got to see Freddie King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, and you couldn’t escape country music. We wanted to be like Delbert and play it all.”
Glen Clark was another fixture on the Fort Worth scene, but he’d moved to L.A. and kept telling McClinton to come to California. The latter was in the middle of a bitter divorce, when a recently divorced woman chatted him up at a gig in Fort Worth.
“The sparks started flying between us,” McClinton says, “and I asked her, ‘Do you want to go to California?’ She said, ‘Sure,’ and off we went. It was like a dream. We slept in a closet separated from the rest of a one-bedroom apartment by a curtain. That lasted two months. One night she came in and said, ‘I’m leaving.’ I sat on my mattress in the closet, and in 40 minutes I wrote ‘Two More Bottles of Wine.’ It just poured out of me.’”
It became one of McClinton’s most successful songs. It was a No. 1 country hit for Emmylou Harris and was also recorded by Martina McBride, Vince Gill, Sheryl Crow and Albert Lee. But that was all in the future; for the time being, McClinton was working with his roommate Clark at a pet-supply company.
“The orders would come down to us in a basket,” McClinton says, “and we had to box them up, label the boxes and leave them for UPS. When you’re doing something like that over and over and over, the rhythm gets me going. While I was standing there, my back to Glen’s back, I wrote ‘B Movie Box Car Blues.’ I always have a song going on in my head.”
That song first appeared on Delbert & Glen, the 1972 debut album from the transplanted Texans. It sold a lot more copies as a track on the Blues Brothers’ 1978 debut album. In 1973, McClinton and Clark released Subject To Change, a follow-up album of equally respectable country-rock and equally disappointing sales.
When McClinton limped back to the bar band circuit in Fort Worth, Nicholson joined the band as a guitarist. McClinton landed a contract with ABC Records and released his first solo album in 1975. Victim of Life’s Circumstances was an impressive disc, but ABC was on shaky ground, and soon after the release of McClinton’s third solo effort, 1977’s Love Rustler, ABC folded its tent. Two more albums with Mercury didn’t change his luck.
That all changed with his first album for Capitol in 1980. The Jealous Kind contained the only bona fide pop hit of McClinton’s career: “Giving It Up for Your Love,” which was No. 8 on the pop charts and No. 35 on the country charts. With its pop-country pledge of romantic loyalty over a clipped R&B guitar, gruff vocal and horns, it was the perfect connection of song, singer and band.
“A friend of mine from Dallas, a great writer named Jerry Lynn Williams, had a new album with that song on it,” McClinton explains, “and it just moved me. It made me want to make it mine. I made that album in Muscle Shoals. Those were the top guys; they’d played with Aretha and Wilson Pickett. I was like everybody else — I wanted to make music with those guys.”
That same year, the movie Urban Cowboy changed the course of country music. Based on a Texas nightclub owned by Mickey Gilley (who died this year on May 7), the movie and its multiple soundtrack albums were huge hits. Nicholson, who knew Gilley from the dancehall circuit, wrote “Jukebox Argument” for the singer, and the producer Jim Ed Norman invited the young songwriter to move to Nashville to write more of the same for the new boot-scootin’ country music. That paid the bills, but Nicholson was missing his old running buddy.
“Delbert’s been the strongest influence on me of anybody,” Nicholson says, “because the songs I really like are rock ’n’ roll, where it started as a mix of country and R&B, the music that Delbert makes so naturally. He had country in his bones, and he loved the blues so much. That first Delbert & Glen record and the Band’s brown album were pretty much all I listened to in the early ’70s.”
When the IRS seized McClinton’s house over unpaid taxes, he finally decided to give Nashville a try. He and Nicholson had done some writing together, but now that they were in the same town, it shifted into another gear. For McClinton’s 1997 album, One of the Fortunate Few, Nicholson co-wrote nine of the 10 tracks and became the album’s producer. That partnership launched a string of four straight studio albums that landed in the Top 20 on the country charts, winning two Grammys in the process.
“We took up writing together,” McClinton says of Nicholson, “and we wrote some of the best songs I’ve ever been part of. We’re friends, and we both like words, so there’s no tension between us. Sometimes I might have a better line; sometimes he would, but it all went into the mix. To write with somebody, you’ve got to believe you can get a good song out of it. And when you do, there’s an elation that can’t be beat.”
“We’re a good combination,” Nicholson adds. “We speak the same language. More important than anything, we pay careful attention to the lyrics. The words dictate the music. It’s the rhythm of the word that leads to the music. Delbert has a natural rhythm to his words that leads to great songs. For me, it was fun to collaborate with Delbert, because I got to infuse my songs with a blues influence; it was like being let out of country-radio jail.”
In recent years, Nicholson’s role has been filled by Nashville’s Kevin McKendree, who serves as co-writer, producer, guitarist and keyboardist on the new album, Outdated Emotion. McKendree and his son, drummer/bassist Yate McKendree, handle most of the playing, though the three Hank Williams numbers and a McClinton-Nicholson co-write are handled by an all-star band led by steel guitarist Chris Scruggs and fiddler Stuart Duncan. What unites all the tracks is a grooving feel for the blues, a feeling that may seem outdated for some but never for McClinton — a feeling he’s had since junior high school.
“When I was 13 in Fort Worth,” he says, “I’d fall asleep to the sound of box cars banging into each other in the nearby switching yard. Beyond the yard was the Trinity River, and it was still possible to go hunting in the woods over there. One day, as my friends and I walked home from a day in the woods, we crossed this field near the railroad tracks, and the outdoor speakers at this black barbecue joint were playing Big Joe Turner’s ‘Honey Hush.’”
“Another switch was turned inside me,” McClinton adds. “Music like that becomes a part of you — or else you become a part of it. I never imagined that I’d play that song with Big Joe many times — or that I’d still be singing the blues all these years later.”
Photos of Delbert McClinton by Clint Herring, courtesy Shore Fire Media