ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 5, 2002
By Steve Newton
To get a good idea of how admired Delbert McClinton is by today’s top country and roots artists, one need only check out the centre spread in the booklet for his new CD, Room to Breathe. It’s a black-and-white shot of McClinton in the studio, surrounded by a swarm of backup singers, and you can spot such notables as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore among the faces. They all croon along on the chorus of “Lone Star Blues”, which tells a comical tale of an unlucky Texas redneck who just can’t get things right. “It’s got a funny story line to it,” notes McClinton, on the phone from his home in Nashville, “and it’s very different from the rest. So I guess we all enjoyed doin’ that the most.”
The 62-year-old singer-songwriter can afford to fool around a bit nowadays. Earlier this year his 27th release, Nothing Personal, won the Grammy for best contemporary blues album. And after four decades of hard work, which included some serious record-company setbacks—“Oh man, you ain’t got enough time for me to tell you about all that”—he was happy to score a statuette. “I thought it was as good a contender as any of the others,” he says of Nothing Personal, “but still, I was up against Buddy Guy and Dr. John and Etta James. That’s pretty fast company.”
Although far from a household name, McClinton does have one unique claim to fame in the pop history books. He once taught John Lennon a few tricks on harmonica, which—as the story goes—the mop top quickly translated into the basic blues-harp riffs heard on the Beatles’ debut single, “Love Me Do”. But the story of McClinton’s lengthy career involves guts more than glory. After endless stints in the rough, blue-collar bars of Forth Worth, Texas, he made the move to Nashville, becoming one of Music City’s most sought-after tunesmiths. Although his songs have been featured on albums by country artists Vince Gill, Wynonna, Lee Roy Parnell, and Martina McBride, his own brand of music is a honky-tonkin’ blend of gospel-tinged R&B, country-swing, boogie-blues, and roadhouse rock. Interested parties can check out McClinton when he and his crack band play the Commodore on Friday (December 6).
After cooling off up here, the raspy-voiced southerner will no doubt be ready for the annual Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches Cruise, which has taken place every January for the last eight years. “I guess you could say that I’m the headline act,” he relates, “but I don’t like to think of it as anybody bein’ a headliner; it’s just a bunch of people, friends of mine, handpicked by me to come do this. I never get to hear a lot of my friends play through the years, you know, because we’re workin’ in some other part of the country, so we get this one week to go and sail around the Caribbean and eat too much and drink too much and get too much sun and have too much fun—and then come home.”
McClinton doesn’t really need a party-packed Caribbean vacation to make him feel elated these days, though. “Everything’s just good, ya know,” he drawls. “I’ve got a wonderful life, a wonderful family. And my career’s goin’ better than ever. I’ve been writing more songs than I’ve ever written in my life. If I’m lucky I’ll get to do this forever.”