Featured Music: Wednesday, October 19, 2005
The guy who used to play the knife-and-gun clubs on Jacksboro Highway now regularly plays Bass Performance Hall — even though he prefers the former group.
Honkytonk Hero

Former Fort Worthian Delbert McClinton keeps getting better with age.


In miles, the distance from old Jacksboro Highway to Bass Performance Hall isn’t that far. In years, however, the trip is long and twisted. For singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton, the notorious strip of knife-and-gun clubs where he began his music career in the late 1950s and early 1960s is light years from Bass Hall, where he usually performs these days on his stops in Cowtown.

But the trip is one that McClinton would gladly take again — today, at 65, he’s doing what he wants the way he wants, which amounts to about a hundred shows and a couple of hundred days on the road per year. The former Fort Worthian said he wouldn’t be able to call the shots the way he can had he not paid his dues. The ultimate beneficiary of his time in the trenches: the listener. The proof: his new c.d., Cost of Living.

Nearing what would be retirement age in the suit-and-tie business world, McClinton somehow manages to continue getting better. At an age when some musicians begin to get by on what they did instead of what they do, McClinton has released his fourth top-quality disc in a row — another classy mix of rock, country, old-style R&B, and just plain blues with horns and keyboards.

McClinton’s well-blended mix of sounds has roots in his hometown of Lubbock, where young Delbert listened to a lot of Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, and Percy Mayfield.

McClinton moved to Fort Worth with his family when he was 11, and by age 15 was a regular musician in honkytonks and ballrooms along Jacksboro. One night he could be entertaining hard-drinking rednecks. The next, backing up blues masters like Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

You can hear all of that — as well as T-Bone Walker and the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown — in McClinton’s classic charts, including “Two More Bottles of Wine,” “B Movie Boxcar Blues,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “Victim of Life’s Circumstances,” “Lipstick, Powder and Paint,” “Giving It Up for Your Love,” and more.

Along the way, McClinton taught John Lennon to play harmonica, picked up a Grammy in 1992 for a duet with Bonnie Raitt (“Good Man/Good Woman”), and got one for himself with 2001’s Nothing Personal. His performances on Saturday Night Live may or may not have led John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to begin The Blues Brothers, but the comedians-turned-musicians recorded one of his songs. Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Wynonna, Lee Roy Parnell, Martina McBride, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood are among others who’ve also recorded McClinton-penned tunes.

“I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world to do what I want to do and to get better at it,” he said. “How much better can life get than that? You’ve got to constantly be learning.

“I don’t write big heavy songs,” he continued. “And most of them have three chords, but I write what’s in my head, and it’s working, and that makes me feel good. I feel like I give it everything I can to make it, because that’s what I want. I hope I’m never satisfied.”

In the past few years, he’s written or co-written most of his own songs, often with buddy Gary Nicholson, who co-produced Cost of Living.

“When we’re writing, we just try to find a groove and hook and tell a story,” he said. “One of the things that works best for me is to start the story backwards — to find an end part and then write it from the back, forward.”

On the new c.d., he plays and sings with intensity, experience, and confidence and has no apologies about lust, love, and love lost. Most of the characters in his songs are on the edges of life and use humor as their armor.

“Midnight Communion” turns a late-night bar scene into an old-time sanctuary too delicious to miss. It might just be his next classic — except for competition from “Hammerhead Stew,” “Your Memory, Me, and the Blues,” or “I Had a Real Good Time.”

In addition to making records and touring, McClinton — like a lot of Texas stars — has his own festival. His 12th annual “Sandy Beaches” cruise around the Gulf of Mexico is scheduled for late January through early February. The list of performers is eclectic and includes Terry Allen, Al Anderson, Marcia Ball, Bekka Bramlett, Stephen Bruton, Tommy Castro, Bruce Channel, Nick Connolly, Rodney Crowell, Bob DiPiero, Fred Eaglesmith, Donnie Fritts, Jimmie Hall, Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps, Clay McClinton, Buddy Miller, Mingo Fishtrap, Gary Nicholson, Kimmie Rhodes, Leslie Satcher, Mark Selby, Tia Sillers, Jeffrey Steele, Paul Thorn, and Wayne Toups. (Unfortunately, the cruise is already sold out.)

Rolling Stone once called McClinton “one of the living icons of genuine American music.” Asked what it feels like to be a living icon, McClinton laughed.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess it feels pretty good. I guess it’s inevitable if you’re lucky and hang around long enough that somebody will say something like that about you. You’ve got to be gracious and roll with it.”

McClinton also laughed at the incongruities of playing the Jacksboro Highway clubs and fancy Bass Hall.

“One’s all the way one way, and one’s all the way the other,” he said. “There’s no comparison. Jacksboro Highway was a beer-soaked strip of clubs that very little good ever came from, except as a place for young guys to learn to play music. Bass Hall is kin to Carnegie Hall.”

Which does he prefer?

“For me, to be active in my element, give me a honkytonk with a lot of sweaty people,” McClinton said. “When you give and get back from the audience, that’s the thing for me.” l

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