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« Governor With a Passion -- Oh, No! | Main | Storytellers »

July 20, 2005

Delbert McClinton

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm having yet another "What kind of idiot was I?" moment.

This one concerns the Texas blues/honkytonk legend Delbert McClinton. Decades ago, I read something rhapsodic about his greatness. I gave him a few listens, failed to get hooked, muttered something about how the press overdoes everything, goddammit, and that was it.

Estupido! With that dumb judgment, I managed to miss out on 20 years of enjoyment. I don't know how or why, but tracks from a semi-recent Delbert CD showed up in my Itunes collection a couple of weeks ago. Ever since I stumbled into this music, I've been listening to little else. So here I am, a rabid new recruit, as eager to rhapsodize as any other Delbert fan.

Have you ever had the pleasure? If you were in the kind of ungenerous mood I was apparently in long ago, you might say that Delbert (and his many talented co-conspirators) deliver a competent version of straight-up, flat-out country-blues. Well, that's not quite right. The sound and the voice are nothing if not flat-out, god knows. But Delbert's a natural-born eclecticist. He uses what he wants, and he works in whatever mode appeals. There's nothing in Delbert's music that isn't roots. But the way he brings the ingredients together is something else. Without making a fuss about it, he swirls together soul, blues, border radio sounds, and a whole variety of country musics -- swing, honky-tonk, Texas.

Delbert's been around, and he has had more ups and downs than he probably cares to remember. He was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1940; he's just four years younger than fellow Lubbock native Buddy Holly. As a young man, he played backup for giants like Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins; on tour in England in the early '60s, he gave John Lennon some harmonica tips that resulted in the catchy harmonica sound on "Love Me Do." Although he has been nominated for a few Grammys (and has won one or two) and he has had one modest national hit (with "Givin' It Up for Your Love"), Delbert has never been a big star. Needless to say, he's had his battles with a variety of devils too -- booze, drugs, the taxman ...

Delbert's an all-around musician: a confident and persuasive harp player as well as an inventive guitarist. As a band-leading vocalist, Delbert has classic Texas-country equipment -- more energy than range, and pipes well-corroded from too much diesel (and no doubt much else). But what he does with that equipment! Delbert is no beady-eyed, deadpan/canny, hold-it-in country singer. You never sense his brain hovering above his repertoire of tricks and stylizations, parceling them out one at a time. Instead, he's loose and out-there. He's also amazingly unapologetic about the soul-man thing -- one of the few white men I'm aware of who can holler "Yowwwwww! C'mon baby! Get on!!!" without looking like a fake, a wannabe, or an ass. At the same time, Delbert's just telling you what it's like. For all his exuberance and his shit-kicking energy, there's a to-the-point directness about his music that's very winning.

Hats off to the many musicians who participated in the making of this sensational disc, among them: B.B. King, Patty Loveless, Mavis Staples, and Lyle Lovett. Hats off especially to producer Gary Nicholson, who I suspect of being some kind of genius. He has orchestrated a set of songs that moves smoothly yet raucously over a lot of sexily bumpy territory, from gospel to blues to honky-tonk.

It's a big CD, but a tight and funky one too -- economical yet expansive, loose yet concise. Part of the wonderfulness of this CD is that it isn't too much. It's exuberant and moving, and it never comes up short in the soul department -- but when it has said its piece, it shuts up. Delbert and Co. serve up Texas blues, follow it with gospel-influenced luvvvv music, unleash some barroom boogie, then throw themselves into some remorse-and redemption wailin'. But Delbert, Gary, and their guests aren't about to let anyone feel down for long. When the going starts to get sticky, it's time to kick the the music around -- and soon you're in the midst of some seriously funky struttin'. There are horns behind a few tracks that are so hot and muscular that they made me remember the Muscle Shoals horns, and then melt at the memory. This is Stax meets Western swing -- or maybe Wilson Pickett sharing duets with Buck Owens.

A not-minor pleasure is the way the songs are full of fabulous country and blues-style wordplay. I don't have access to the CD cover and thus can't offer tribute to the excellent songwriters, but I'm going to type out some of the lyrics anyway. God, how I love typing out great blues and country lyrics:

"I saw someone again today
Who remembered me and you
They asked the same old questions
I gave the same excuse.
They say, What a shame, what a shame
to lose a love so fine.
But I never lost you
I never lost you
I never lost you.
You were never mine."

"He keeps sending me angels
Here they come a-flyin'
He keeps sending me angels
To keep me from cryin'
He keeps sending me angels
Sweet and true
He keeps sending me angels
Just like you."

"Here you come backin' in.
3 a.m. again
Grinnin' that silly grin
Smellin' just like sin,

Holdin' up that alibi that's tissue-paper thin
Diggin' down deeper and deeper
Into that hole you already in --

If you can't lie no better ...
If you can't lie no better ...
If you can't lie no better than that,
You might as well tell the truth."

Who needs the poetry in The Paris Review and The New Yorker when you've got stuff like this to enjoy? (Not a considered critical argument, by the way, just an expression of how these lyrics make me feel. "Ejaculatory speech," not "reflective speech.") This combination of the country-terse and the soulful-juicy has me going back for seconds, thirds, and more.

Music's something else, isn't it? When I listen to Delbert's tunes, what runs through my head is something like, "Oh baby, I been there! And ain't that what it's all about!" Now, this is a strong, clear feeling, one that's afflicted with no self-doubt. I want to wail along with these songs. Yet of course I haven't actually been where Delbert's singing about. Me, I'm a city boy who spends 'way too much time in his own head. And I sound like a major-league ninny when I try to talk lowdown. But when music works its charm, the spell is definitively cast. I listen to Delbert, and by God there ain't nobody gonna persuade me I don't know exactly what Delbert McClinton is singing about.

Good lord, what was wrong with me 20 years ago? I wonder if it was the unashamed, flat-out, open, and direct quality of Delbert's music that turned me off. Knowing myself a little, I suspect that I was looking for something more complicated, more perverse, or more tricky. Basically: I was desperate to find myself interesting.

But unaffected flat-outness is much of what Delbert's greatness is about. He is the soulful-country, patchwork being he is; he gives generously and enthusiastically of it; and that's really something. (How callow and vain a young man I must have been! Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa ...) There's nothing contrived about Delbert McClinton's music, to put it mildly. A great spirit rolls right out of him.

Poking round some web resources, I read a lot of eloquent Amazon listener reviews of Delbert's CDs, and many of his fans express their enthusiasm beautifully. But the comment I liked best came from a woman who wrote, very simply: "It is a soundtrack for life." I'll second that, and I'll do so very humbly.

Well, never too late. And I see that it's time to rejoice: Delbert's website is announcing that he has a new studio album coming out in about a month. It also tells me that Delbert will be appearing in NYCity soon -- at B.B. King's club, in late September. Delbert is legendary for his live appearances, so I'm calling up for tickets now.

Here's an NPR audio interview with Delbert.



posted by Michael at July 20, 2005


"Good lord, what was wrong with me 20 years ago?"

I ask myself the same question all the time, but if we change over time, isn't it natural to expect our likes and dislikes to change along with us? You're at a place in your life now where Delbert speaks directly to you; were you at that same place 20 years ago?

From your description, it sounds like I might now be in a Delbert sort of place too, so thanks for the recommendation.

Posted by: Outer Life on July 20, 2005 7:23 PM

You're speaking all the truths here. A night filled with McClinton's music alongside early Jerry Jeff Walker and any James McMurtry (I'm very partial to his "Live in Aught-Three", where he patters between songs).
Oh, and a belated three candle birthday wish to you guys. Great entries on a continual basis.

Posted by: Darkov on July 20, 2005 7:29 PM

"Clark Sessions 72-73" are on my hard drive. Seminal, classic, essential, etc.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on July 20, 2005 7:58 PM

Delbert, when teamed with Lovett is an impossible-to-beat duo. I love their funkiness, their Texas-ness and their outright way-cool talent.

I laughed aloud when I read this post, on the commute home this evening from the Land of Glass Towers, I was singing aloud to Delbert and Lyle on a little ditty called "Too Much Stuff".

However, I can't git too much of Delbert or Lyle.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 20, 2005 9:19 PM

Welcome to the club.

May I suggest that you broaden your horizons next by going backward and listening to everything ever recorded by Elmore James?

He was already rocking the house in 1949. One of the greatest of all blues songwriters... his songs are emotional explosions. An intense romantic.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on July 21, 2005 9:52 AM

OuterLife -- It's a hard one to figure out sometimes, isn't it? Have you just aged (and thus changed), or were you indeed once a jerk? I'm with you: we biochemically change over time, we have many more experiences (aka wear and tear) -- why shouldn't that affect our tastes? And god knows it seems to. But sometimes we've also been prigs, or blind, or clueless. I dunno. In this case, I'm betting that my failure to respond sensibly to Delbert when I was in my 20s was a function of being vain and priggish. But then, "vain and priggish" aren't unusual when you're young. Tough call!

DarkoV -- Thanks, and thanks for the James McMurtry rec too. I'd been wondering which of his discs I should spring for next. Great stuff.

Bob -- Another great recommendation, tks. I can feel my mood going up (and my wallet getting slimmer) as we speak.

Pattie -- Do Lyle and Delbert sing together much? "Too Much Stuff" is on the CD I've been glued to, and it's certainly a gem.

S.T. -- Tks. I've done a little Elmore, but in 'way too cursory a fashion. I'll have to get back to him soon.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 21, 2005 11:45 AM

Fort Worth

As a liberal Texan, I can't deny my state has been an embarrassment lately, but we can always be proud of our musicians. Second to none. Blues, folk, rock, country, jazz, it tends sometimes to get all mixed together and simmered like chili until it comes out either "eclectic" or just plain real. Buddy Holly, Robert Johnson & Lightnin Hopkins, Ornette Coleman, Janis Joplin and the weird poet/hippies like Shawn Phillips & Barbara Mauritz.

Two other classic old-timers who moved beyond labels were Doug Sahm and Townes van Zandt. If you like McClinton. But sounds like you were attracted to the "weathering"...a lot of Texas musicians din't survive long enough to gain the nice patina of Lovett and McLinton.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on July 21, 2005 3:06 PM

Here's hoping your post will send a lot of new listener's Delbert's way. Few deserve it more. Isn't it great when we've reached an age where 'being interesting' is a whole lot less important than just digging what's real?

Posted by: Marilyn on July 26, 2005 1:17 PM

I seen Delbert play since the late seventies. It's been 50 concerts now and they still rock my world. When my friend first took me to see him, I asked if he was a Scottish folksinger judging by his name.I came away saying, "Damn, that guy rocked!"

Posted by: Curtis Ingram on August 8, 2005 2:11 PM

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