Photo by Clint Herring, courtesy Shore Fire Media

“You’re 81. What the heck are you making a new record for?”

It’s an honest, semi-innocent question to pose to singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton when I get him on the phone the other day. A man of his maturity doesn’t need to be doing what he’s just done, recording and releasing his 27th record album, Outdated Emotion, coming out May 13.

Weren’t 26 albums enough?

“Well, why not?” McClinton says in his familiar raspy voice before chuckling. ”What else am I gonna do?”

It’s not exactly a new album, although five of the 16 tracks are Delbert originals. This is more like McClinton’s version of Willie Nelson’s pop-standards classic Stardust, featuring some of the favorite songs that the Lubbock-born, Fort Worth-raised boy grew up on. “I’ve wanted to record Hank Williams songs my entire life, so I did, and can’t anybody stop me,” he says with a defiant Don’t Mess With Octogenarians attitude.

McClinton officially quit the road—his bread-and-butter for most of his adult life—during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was looking out at an audience and wondering, ‘What are you doing? Why are you here? Don’t you know you can get sick?’ That life is gone,” he says. “But I didn’t give up music. These are songs that still excite me.”

A whole lot of great music is reconsidered on the album, starting with its first three singles: “Ain’t That Lovin’ You,” a ’56 original by bluesman Jimmy Reed; “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” popularized in 1953 by Houston’s Amos Milburn and His Chicken Shackers; and “Stagger Lee,” the much-covered, upbeat song about gambling and murder made popular in 1957 by New Orleans rhythm ‘n’ blues singer Lloyd Price.

“Ain’t That Lovin’ You” and another Reed song, “The Sun Is Shining,” particularly stand out. McClinton’s signature voice, the rasp now aged with a slight raggedness, is the perfect vehicle for the signature Reed loping rhythm and attitude. “Jimmy Reed was a real big influence in my life, still is,” McClinton says. “And so were Ray Charles and Hank Williams.”

Delbert McClinton has been a constant in my life. We both grew up in Fort Worth. He was 11 years ahead of me at Arlington Heights High School, where he burnished a reputation as a hood, and as the music guy, that cat who played in cool bands and made cool records.

By the time I came of age, he had already done turns with the Straitjackets, a blues band comprised of white teenagers that backed touring blues artists like Reed and Sonny Boy Williamson, and the Ron-Dels, his ’60s blues and rock band with Ronnie Kelly. He’d already put his signature harmonica sound on his version of Williamson’s “Wake Up, Baby,” which became the theme song that began each broadcasting day on Fort Worth’s Black radio station KNOK. McClinton’s harmonica, in that style learned from Reed and Williamson, became the hook for Bruce Channel’s international hit “Hey, Baby,” a song that remains a favorite of Texas high school marching bands.

In 1962, while accompanying Channel on tour in England, McClinton showed his harmonica licks to 21-year-old John Lennon, the guitarist in the tour’s opening act, the Beatles. Lennon proceeded to demonstrate what he picked up from McClinton on the song “Love Me Do,” recorded not long afterward.

It all started with the radio, McClinton says. “There was all that music from XERF and those million-watt stations [broadcasting from Mexico]. Late at night, they came in real good. Other stations, too, like KVOO in Tulsa, WLS in Chicago, WLAC in Nashville, KWKH in Shreveport.”

But his entrée to the blues was the local Black station. “KNOK was the deal,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for KNOK, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Memories of hearing songs on the radio flood back, like the first time he heard “Honky Tonk, Part One” by Bill Doggett. “It was 1956, we were going from one drive-in-tray-on-the-window joint to another, looking for girls and stuff,” he says.

Thanks to the radio, Jimmy Reed came as naturally as Hank Williams, no matter what segregation laws mandated. For McClinton, the different sounds were simply music he liked.

It helped that he had the right kind of raising. “My mother wanted me to be a country singer,” he says. “All my daddy wanted to hear me play was soul and rhythm and blues.”

McClinton met Jimmy Reed through his band the Straitjackets, who worked the Skyliner Ballroom on Fort Worth’s storied sin strip, the Jacksboro Highway. “On this particular night, we played on our own and got to stay and watch the whole show,” he recalls. “I sat right on the side of the stage, and I hear somebody playing harp. And Jimmy Reed comes walking out behind there playing the harmonica. I had been playing harmonica all my life, but I was playing stuff like ‘Dixie’ and little Irish jigs. The next day, I went over to T.H. Conn music store and I bought a few harps.”

Delbert McClinton fronting the Straitjackets, circa 1960. Photo courtesy James Pennebaker.

Pretty soon, McClinton and the Straitjackets were playing with Reed. “We worked with Jimmy a lot, backing him up in the late ’50s and early ’60s at Jack’s Place [on the Mansfield Highway in southeast Fort Worth], where the neon sign of a kicking mule was hard to miss. If the mule was kicking, everything was cool. If it wasn’t kicking, it meant there was gonna be a raid that night. Lot of times, he and Sonny Boy [Williamson] both, we would play with them in Fort Worth or Dallas on Friday and Saturday night, and then go up to Oklahoma with ’em to play a Black club on Sunday night.”

The Straitjackets went on to release several singles, including versions of Bo Diddley’s “Diddley Daddy,” Louis Prima’s “Just a Gigolo,” and Cookie and the Cupcakes’ swamp-popper “Matilda.”

“We got a lot of play on Mexican radio with that one,” McClinton says. “Go figure.”

As for the Ron-Dels, they generated national airplay with McClinton’s original song “If You Really Want Me To I’ll Go,” a pensive ballad that has been covered by Waylon Jennings, Bonnie Owens, and the Sir Douglas Quintet, among others.

By 1971, McClinton had relocated to Los Angeles, where he made two albums with fellow Fort Worth cat Glen Clark as Delbert and Glen for Clean Records, a prestigious Atlantic boutique label run by social shaker Earl McGrath. The duo crafted an all-original sound that leaned toward country, not unlike what was blowing up in Austin at the time.

“I always felt I was gonna do something similar to what Willie did,” McClinton says. But record and ticket sales—and the fame and fortune that went with it—escaped the Delbert and Glen duo.

In 1975, Delbert debuted as a solo artist with Victim of Life’s Circumstances, produced by Chip Young, Elvis’ session guitar player. It’s a raucous affair, especially the title track and the much-covered “Two More Bottles of Wine,” that sounded simultaneously country and bluesy, with a sharp edge. Response to the album was tepid outside Texas, which explained why McClinton promoted the album playing at Castle Creek, a listening club located by the state Capitol in Austin. Accompanied by a second acoustic guitarist, the shows might have suited McClinton’s nonexistent promo budget, but the folk presentation did not flatter.

A few months later, he returned to Austin fronting a band he’d put together in Fort Worth featuring his longtime guitar sidekick Billy Ray Sanders and saxophonist Robert Harwell. Their full-on rhythm and blues sound, overheated in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, blew the roof off Soap Creek Saloon. Overnight, McClinton grew into one of Austin’s biggest club acts, regularly packing Soap Creek, Antone’s, and other venues, and scoring opening slots on Willie Nelson shows.

“That was when the good times began,” McClinton says. “You were there. You couldn’t help but get caught up in the Willie uprising. It was fair game, trying to get in on it. I never thought I was a country singer, but I figured I can do that.”

By late ’70s, Delbert was a regular on the Texas music roadhouse circuit, a new discovery on Carolina’s Beach Music scene, and a star at the Lone Star Café in New York, where he was the hottest of the Texas acts that played the room, attracting celebrities including Mick Jagger. John Belushi, the breakout star of Saturday Night Live, became a fan and regularly sat in with the band. Talk radio disc jockey Don Imus was another fan. Along with Kinky Friedman, another Lone Star Café regular, McClinton was the only artist whose music Imus would play on his nationally syndicated show.

Being a big dog in New York came with some heavy caveats. “The Lone Star took it to a whole other level, but it wasn’t one that I could control and benefit from, partly because I was the world’s biggest jerk at the time,” McClinton says.  “We tried to live like we couldn’t go to work without being ripped.”

It was during his Lone Star Café heyday that he met Wendy Goldstein, a news producer for NBC at the time who would become the love of his life and the manager of his career. “Up until Wendy came along, my life in music was blowing in the wind,” he says. “She raked it into a pile and made me a better man. She’s the reason for it all. She really is. We did start making some money.”

Delbert McClinton (center) with Vince Gill (left) and Lee Roy Parnell, who performed on his 1997 single “Sending Me Angels.” Photo courtesy Delbert McClinton.

Over the years, McClinton has scored a few hits, including 1980’s “Giving It Up For Your Love” and the 1992 duet with Tanya Tucker “Tell Me About It,” and won four Grammy Awards. For the past three decades, his steadiest gig has been the Sandy Beach Cruises, one of the first and most popular annual music cruises working the Caribbean. “Those cruises have been a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s become a family reunion with a great big family that you like.” His last Sandy Beaches cruise is scheduled for January 2023.

These days, McClinton splits time between his residence in Nashville, a condo in downtown Austin, and a getaway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

“I’ve evolved into this old guy,” he says. “I can just sit and look around me and enjoy it, because I’ve never stopped to look at it before. I know why I didn’t pause, because I was chasing this dream. I’m not chasing anything anymore. The best thing about being retired is, I’m not committing to do anything for anybody. That makes me smile.”

Did he catch that dream?

“I did,” he says. “I can’t imagine my career to be any more exhilarating and enjoyable than it is. It only became ‘have to do’ in the past few years. ‘That’s another hotel room I hope doesn’t have red carpet.’ It comes down to that.”

The “have to do” was eliminated when he sold his touring bus. But like he said, quitting the road doesn’t mean he’s quit music. In fact, McClinton has been writing songs with Shawn Camp and Gary Nicholson. “I hadn’t tried to write with anybody for more than two years,” he says. “I was beginning to think I was done. I came up with the title ‘Painted Women and Ice Cold Beer,’ which pretty much sums up life. I came home with one verse, and did a second verse myself, then revised the first verse. Let me read it to you, like it’s poetry:

“I’m ready to rock, so let the party start.
It’s a 10-minute walk to my favorite bar.
They got longnecks on ice in a clawfoot tub
It’s a little ol’ place called the Rub-de-Dub

(Verse two)
“They’ve got live music five nights a week
Joe Don and the Two-Tones, they’re hard to beat

They keep it coming til the cows come home.
I’m the last to leave when everybody’s gone.
Two good reasons I like to come here.”

If it seems like McClinton’s basking in the fact that he ran life’s race and won, he won’t argue. “When you do what you set out to do, and when you realize you’ve done it, that’s just really all there is. You’ve done it. It doesn’t matter. It couldn’t matter. How could it matter?” he says.

“Here’s what I think about that feeling: The best win that you can get is to never get through. Know it and pursue it, but never finish.”

He releases a hearty belly laugh, the sound of satisfaction. “I’ve got nothing to prove. I’m sitting on top of the world, far as I can tell.”

Outdated Emotion confirms it. And I’m looking forward to album number 28.

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