By Richard Skanse
While the T Bone Burnett-produced O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack may have been the No. 1 roots music success story of 2001, Burnett’s old Fort Worth chum Delbert McClinton didn’t have too shabby a year himself. To wit, at the beginning of the year he released Nothing Personal, his first album comprised entirely of songs written or co-written by himself since his 1975 debut, Victim of Life’s Circumstances. Even more significant for McClinton was the fact that it was the first album of his career he owned outright himself, having financed the recording on his own dime and leased it to New West Records. After four-plus decades in the business — a marathon run that has taken him from the blues joints of Fort Worth to world-renown status as one of the most respected and consistently house-rocking purveyors of honky-tonk and soul-infused rhythm and blues (as a powerful singer, harp player, songwriter and band leader) — McClinton was finally calling all of his own shots.
Had it all gone wrong, he would have had no one to blame but himself. But of course it all went wonderfully well, with Nothing Personal widely acclaimed as the best album of McClinton’s storied career, one of his self-penned tracks plucked by Garth Brooks for inclusion on the country superstar’s multi-platinum Scarecrow album, and — on Feb. 27 of this year — McClinton’s win for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the Grammy Awards.
No, 2001 wasn’t a bad year at all for McClinton, and 2002’s shaping up just as fine. A few weeks before taking home his Grammy, he set sail for the Caribbean on his 8th annual Sandy Beaches music cruise, rounding up a bunch of his musician friends and a whole mess of fans for a week of jamming and grooving on the high seas. “It was the best one yet,” he raves. “There’s no way to describe it to anybody … it’s like being with a family you really like of 1,000 people.” We caught up with McClinton — a.k.a. “The Man Who Taught John Lennon How to Play Harmonica” — at his Nashville home the week after the Grammys to find him already gearing up to record the follow-up to Nothing Personal.
To start out, congratulations on your Grammy win.
Well thank you very much.
What did that mean to you? How much stock do you put into things like that?
Well, you know. I don’t want to be ungracious here, because I think the Grammys are a good thing. I think there’s good in ’em and there’s bad in ’em. I guess the thing that I feel about it really is over the many years those kind of things I used to think, “Boy, that would be the greatest thing in the world — you get a Grammy, you’ve got it made.” But I’ve been around long enough to know that’s not the case. You know what I mean? So it’s a good thing. I’m thrilled about it. It is the NARAS people that do the voting, so it’s a valid thing, but you just can’t take any of that too serious.
How many have you won?
Well I won one in ’91 with Bonnie Raitt. This is the first one I’ve ever won on my own.
So it seems like this one would be particularly sweet.
It is, for that reason it is. When I got the one with Bonnie, of course that was a great thing, but still, I was in on her coattails. And I don’t mean to disrespect that in any way, but it feels better to win one on your own.
Especially for an album that you did so much on your own. Financing it, writing it, the whole nine yards.
Well that goes without saying. I’m proud of that whether we got a Grammy or not. I’m proud of the fact that I went in and did exactly what I wanted to do, and I think made a good record.
You won for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and Jimmie Vaughan won Best Traditional Blues Album. Do you have any idea how they distinguish the two?
I don’t even know what contemporary blues is.
You should call Jimmie up and tell him to stop living in the past …
[Laughs] In my opinion, they don’t have nearly the correct categories for some of the great talent that’s out there. I was proud that Lucinda [Williams] won for what she did — Best Female Rock Vocal — which was just really cool. But so much of it is driven by radio, and so much of a radio career is driven by a corporation, so it gets into a gray area of, is this worthy, or does it just have all the juice behind it? You can’t take it for other than what it is. It’s an award that I was presented for Contemporary Blues, and at this point I’ll take it for whatever they want to call it.
Did you do the party circuit afterwards?
I actually only went to one party. T Bone Burnett’s a good friend of mine, and he called and invited us to the O Brother party, which was just delightful. T Bone is a very talented guy, always has been. I was so glad to see him get that [Album of the Year for the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, which Burnett produced]. That is certainly one that I feel was on the money.
Have you ever worked with him?
As a matter of fact, T Bone produced the first Delbert & Glen [Clark] record, if you’re familiar with those. That was back in ’72.
Has that album ever been reissued?
No, it hasn’t. I’ve tried to get the rights to reissue it for years and I cannot get them to come off of it. It belongs to Atlantic Records, and they won’t even talk to me about it.
What was the style?
Well, it was what Glen and me were doing in 1972, which was in a sense a little bit of what at that period in time was called progressive country, sort of. It was just songs we were writing and the way we were making music. It would be really difficult for me to try and categorize it or tell you what it was.
Speaking of your early recordings, one reissue that’s readily available is The Crazy Cajun Recordings, compiled of songs you recorded for Major Bill Smith that were later purchased by Huey Meux and released on his Crazy Cajun label. The story goes that you hated the album so much that you destroyed every copy of the original album that Crazy Cajun sent you.
[Laughs] I did! I destroyed about 300 copies of it. I didn’t dislike it so much as I hated the fact that … well, it was not very good. Most of it was just demo stuff that we had done. What I hated so much was that [Major Bill Smith] was able to take that stuff, we never made a penny off of it, and sell it to Huey Meaux, and Huey Meux puts it on a deal with me and I think Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, somebody else. The first one they put out. It made me mad. Pissed me off. And I hated the fact that some piece of shit was making money off of something that I did and I wasn’t getting paid for it.
Were those your first solo sessions?
Yeah, they were. That was the early ’60s, and Major Bill was the only guy around that was recording anybody. So it was the only game in town. I didn’t think about making any money. I was young, and just like anybody, even today, somebody offers you a chance to record, you just jump at it. You sign anything. Well, I signed away publishing on all that stuff and made $5 a session for going in and backing up his other artists. Me and my band we’d make $5 a piece. At the time it was okay, because we didn’t know any better. And we were getting to record. We were getting to listen back to what we did, and that was more important. Those days, they were wonderful, but what I think about when I think about them is the unscrupulous people that had control of it.
And all these years later, you can buy that album on CD but you can’t get the Delbert & Glen album.
Well, nobody said it was going to be fair.
On the brighter side, you financed Nothing Personal yourself, retained ownership and leased it to New West Records — meaning now that Garth Brooks has covered “Squeeze Me In” for his new Scarecrow album, that nice chunk of change goes right to you. How’d you land that cut?
Well that came in the back door. Nobody pitched it to him. He heard it and liked it and recorded it.
Between that and the Grammy, you really went the distance with this album without having to through all the normal channels. Did it exceed your expectations?
Actually, no it didn’t. I had all the faith in the world in this record, and I’ll tell you why. We did it over a period of about 10 and a half months. So I had time to live with it, and I didn’t get tired of any of it. Some things we changed, one song we re-did three or four times before we got it right — “Livin’ It Down.” I cut it twice out in California, and it just wasn’t right. And then when I did another session out here in Nashville, took my band in, and we got it on the first take.
And right now, you’re working on the follow-up, right?
Actually I don’t start until the end of this month. We’re going in the last week of March and start recording.
Will it continue in the singer-songwriter vein of Nothing Personal?
Yes it will be. We’re doing it exactly the same way we did the last time. Gary Nicholson and I are producing, we’re doing it on our own. I’ve got about 23 or 24 new songs. I hope I have the same problem this time as I did the last one — I recorded more than I could use and I didn’t know what to take off. That’s the kind of problems I like. If you gotta be in a quandary, be in one that’s a win-win situation.
Are you going to put it out yourself again?
Yeah. It’ll be on New West Records, but I will retain ownership of it. It’s ridiculous not to, because there’s no way to win with record companies unless you sell so many records it’s unbelievable, and at that point, you realize how rotten a deal you got, and where you might make $6 million dollars, you should have made $26 million. That kind of thing, there’s no way to look at it but ugly.
Do you think it will come out this year?
Well, it depends how well the recording goes. I’m about as good as I am at the time. I may go in there and if I’m having a good three days, we may finish the whole thing. But if I’m not as good as I can be, it’s going to take longer.
There was also talk of you re-recording a lot of your greatest hits for an album.
I was going to do that first. But when the Grammy nomination came up, I decided to make a new record first. I’ve already got some of that [the greatest hits album] recorded. The reason I’m doing that is because all my old records, I still have to buy them from these record companies. And I just decided to hell with that. I’ll re-record them and go around that. Make them better. They’ll certainly be fresher, updated — they’ll be the way we do them today. And all those old records, I was on such a tight schedule recording them, the record company says, “You’ve got five days to get all of your tracks done.” That’s certainly possible, but if you go in there and you work five days and you’ve got four things that you’d like to re-do, you don’t get a chance to redo them. So they come out however you recorded them. And that’s not always the best way. In fact, that’s seldom the best way.
Out of all the thousands of honky-tonk and blues joints gigs you’ve played over the years, does any one stand out as particularly harrowing?
Where you were afraid for your life?
Oh, yeah. There have been times like that. Mostly just … well, I’ve had people pull guns on me. I’ve had people who didn’t want to pay us and two or three guys standing there with baseball bats saying get the fuck out of here. I’ve been in clubs where there were shootings, knifings, gang fights. You know, all the wonderful colorful things of life. I don’t need any more of that.
What provokes someone to pull a gun on you?
Everything that people do in beer joints. Drinking too much, taking drugs, being crazy to begin with. Hell, I was walking out of a club one night in Fort Worth, and kind of bumped into this guy. I kind of stepped aside, it was me and the band, and one of the guys mumbled something, like “prick.” And the guy turned around and yelled “Motherfucker!” and he pulled out a chrome-plated .45. Aimed it right at me. And he was obviously all fucked up. That happens real quick, and there’s no way you can prepare for it. A couple of years later, he got killed in a drive-by shooting while he was fixing a flat — somebody had obviously set him up. They shot him full of holes. Most of those old outlaws I knew in Fort Worth are dead from some sort of violence. That was a wild time back in the ’50s and ’60s around there.
Is there any trace of the Fort Worth you knew back then still around?
Not really. In fact a year or so ago I was in town and I went out to see what was left of the Jacksboro Highway, and I got lost because there’s no landmarks there. And all the intersections have been changed and updated. I got lost. I actually had to stop and ask somebody where a certain road was that I had been down a million times.
I saw you last summer at Stubb’s in Austin and remember seeing a few bras thrown on stage. Were you ever confronted by jealous husbands?
Fortunately not lately. I do remember one night in West Monroe, La., I came in from a gig and I had gone to bed. I heard this knocking on the door and I couldn’t imagine who it might be, so I went to answer it and it was my guitar player and some irate husband who insisted that his wife was in there with me. So I said, “Come on in, have a look around.” He looked everywhere. He still believed that I had something to do with her not being where she was supposed to be. After he left, I found out that the guitar player that he came to had his wife in his room. So that’s why he was so confident to bring him to my room, because he knew he sure as hell wasn’t going to find her there! It’s always something.
What’s the most soulful, bluesy town in America these days?
Wherever we have a really good night is the current best place. A good night is where the band is well-oiled and popping just right. That’s the best place in the world. But the best times I’ve ever had in my life were at the old Soap Creek Saloon out on Bee Caves Road. That was as good as it gets. In the ’70s.
What’s your least favorite place to play? Are there any towns where you’ve said, “Never again!”?
Not really a town, maybe to a venue. I hate to play in these places where people don’t dance, where they’re all sitting like at a theater. That’s really difficult for me because I grew up playing honky tonks. And I depend on that feedback from people in a honky tonk. We were playing once in Norway at a big auditorium, and you’d have thought everybody in the audience was dead. Because they didn’t clap, they didn’t do anything. At the end they clapped, but up until that time, they just sat there and stared at us. It was really strange.
Last August you were nominated into the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame in your native Lubbock. I know you moved away from Lubbock when you were 11, so that wasn’t really where you got your career started, but what was that like for you to go back? Was there much nostalgia for you?
Well it was unusual. The place we did it, at Buddy Holly Park, I could have taken a rock and hit the elementary school I went to. So I remember standing up there and while they were talking about my career, I was looking across the street trying to pick out the third of fourth grade room where I went to school. And I was thinking, “Boy, sure been a long way from there.”