Featured Music: Wednesday, October 17, 2002
Delbert McClinton
Sat at Billy Bob’s Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza,
FW. $8.75-15.75. 817-624-7117.
Blue Skies

A new outlook on making records gives Fort Worthian Delbert McClinton Room to Breathe.


Delbert McClinton’s early history is the stuff of Fort Worth legend: As leader of the Straitjackets, he learned his trade in early-’60s joints like Jack’s Place on Mansfield Highway and the Skyliner Ballroom, backing blues greats like Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Buster Brown (remember “Fannie Mae”?), Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, and Freddy King. He was the first white artist to get a record (1960’s “Wake Up Baby”) played on KNOK. He taught John Lennon harmonica while touring Europe with Fort Worth homeboy Bruce Channel on the heels of Channel’s 1962 hit “Hey Baby.”

Since then, McClinton’s career has been a roller-coaster of big hits, high awards, and collapsing record companies. “I’ve not had a lot of luck with record companies,” he said by phone from his home in Nashville. “Every company I was ever with went out of business: Muscle Shoals Sound, ABC Records, Clean Records, Capricorn.” But he also won Grammys in 1991 for his duet with Bonnie Raitt on “Good Man, Good Woman,” from Raitt’s Luck of the Draw album, and this year for his 2001 album, Nothing Personal.

This Saturday, McClinton returns to Billy Bob’s, where he promises “two hours of music that makes you want to jump up and down. We’ll be doing a lot of stuff off the new record.” That new c.d., Room to Breathe, on the Austin-based New West label, picks up where Nothing Personal left off. It’s an eclectic mix of R&B, country, and rock ’n’ roll, highlighted by McClinton’s wry, witty, and worldly wise songwriting and soulful singing.

Take the song “Lone Star Blues.” A cowboy Pilgrim’s Progress, it follows its protagonist as he rides bulls in El Paso, gets laid off from Brown & Root, and winds up as a bouncer at (where else?) Billy Bob’s. The track has a late-’70s Austin vibe and a background chorus that reads like a “Who’s Who” of Texana: Marcia Ball, Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, all of the Flatlanders, Emmylou Harris, Billy Joe Shaver. Said McClinton, “It’s got James Pennebaker from Fort Worth playing fiddle and steel, and James is about as Texas as they get.”

Another album highlight, “Everything I Know About the Blues,” practically begs for a cover version by Ray Charles. And although McClinton’s been covered by the likes of Vince Gill, Wynonna Judd, Martina McBride, and Lee Roy Parnell, writing for other performers isn’t a priority for him. “The songs I write, I usually write for me, although some of them have been picked up and recorded by other artists,” he said. “I usually don’t pitch ’em to anybody, although sometimes my co-writers do.”

On Room to Breathe, McClinton’s co-writers include longtime collaborator Gary Nicholson (who also co-produced), ex-Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, and former NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson. But the most striking song is one he composed himself: “The Rub,” with a storyline straight out of a Jim Thompson pulp novel. Our pick to click: the ballad “Don’t Want to Love You,” which features McClinton singing over (gasp!) a string section.

McClinton endured a couple of years of early-’70s country-rock obscurity in an L.A. duo with Glen Clark before launching his solo career. His early efforts weren’t big sellers, but Emmylou Harris and, of all folks, the Blues Brothers recognized his songwriting ability, covering “Two More Bottles of Wine” and “B Movie Boxcar Blues,” respectively. Unfortunately, as soon as these songs began taking off, McClinton said, “Capricorn Records declared bankruptcy and had all their phones turned off.”

In 1980, McClinton scored a big crossover pop-country hit with “Givin’ It Up for Your Love,” but, you guessed it, the label (Capitol subsidiary Muscle Shoals Sound) folded soon after, and he spent most of the 1980s without a record deal. Then in 1986, an invitation to sing on guitarist Roy Buchanan’s Dancing on the Edge album led to an association with blues label Alligator Records. In 1989, McClinton’s Alligator release Live From Austin earned him his first Grammy nomination.

In 1997, McClinton signed with Universal subsidiary Rising Tide and released One of the Fortunate Few, a good album that could have sold more than the 250,000 copies it did before the label went south. “It was doing better than any record I ever had,” McClinton said, “and four months into the release, Universal said, ‘It’s all over. Stop everything.’ People were in the studio, doing videos, doing this and that, and they got one phone call that said, ‘There is no more Rising Tide.’ ” Stung by this experience, McClinton took the unusual step for an established artist of funding his next recording himself.

While the current “Americana” boom may have made radio slightly more receptive to his sound, McClinton doesn’t hide his disgust with The Biz. “They need to tear it all down and start over because it’s pathetic. I can’t listen to radio. I can’t tell where one mediocre song ends and the next one starts. I don’t care who they lump me in with. I’m just making the records I want to make. They can call it what they want to, and hopefully some of the stations will play it. The country stations say I’m too bluesy and the blues stations say I’m too country. But I’ve got a fan base that supports me in what I do.”

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