No Time for Nonsense
Delbert McClinton comes to St. Paul

October 20, 2001
By Russ Ringsak
A friend spent some time in South Dakota a while back, he and a hunting partner, looking for wild turkeys. They camped out in the western hills; at night they had time to look up at the stars and discuss important matters, the meaning of life in particular. After four days of serious analysis wherein they hashed through most of the known options they came back home with the answer: it's live music.

I've never doubted this conclusion. And over the past forty years the grand master of live music in this country has been Delbert McClinton. He's a twice-a-year regular at the big old Medina Ballroom west of the cities here, and when he's there the place fills with a broad and very American audience, in the best sense of the word. He has an everyday look to him, neither chic nor dangerous, neither aloof nor overly chummy, and he won't try to knock your socks off with pyrotechnics. Doesn't have that high wail of Roy Orbison or the big hair of Michael Bolton, nor the smoke and fire of Jimi Hendrix; but when he sings guys grin and women bring roses to the stage. He connects. To be at a Delbert McClinton concert is to be in a large crowd of happy people.

He was born in Lubbock, Texas, and learned his trade mostly in the bars of Fort Worth. He doesn't write music for kids. Nashville writer Michael McCall put it this way: "Delbert's raspy, ferocious voice carries in it the history of American popular music. There's the down-home rhythm and testifying punch of gospel-based R&B, the aggressive snarl of the blues, the mournful rumination of honky-tonk, the jaunty spirit of swing, and the up-front sexuality of early rock n' roll." Texas in general and Fort Worth in particular have long been a major source of the music that binds us all -- blues, jazz, Western swing, rock 'n roll, R&B, country -- and musicians there "were expected to play most of it and make people dance to all of it." Longtime McClinton sideman Stephen Bruton, a Fort Worth native, said, "You might play in a country band, a rock band and a blues band, all in the same day. If you could play a shuffle, you could work anywhere." Which included, in the 50s and 60s, a stretch of saloons and bars along the Jacksboro Highway, where an early group of Delbert's, the Straitjackets, was the house band at Jack's Place. Jack's was known for bringing in top R & B talent.

"I used to play a thing called Blue Monday Night," McClinton said, "We were the only white band on the show at the Skyliner Ballroom in Fort Worth. It would be Bobby Bland and Junior Parker. And God almighty, it was just great!...I was at the right place at the right time and knew it." The lessons weren't wasted, and in 1960 his cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Wake Up Baby" became the first song by a white artist to be played on KNOK-AM, Fort Worth's great blues station.

His press release implies that most of the legends are true: touring England in 1962, he was pestered by a kid in a young British group to show him harmonica licks, and if you listen to the Beatles' "Love Me Do" you'll hear it. And he did play in a rough joint owned by Jack Ruby, now famous for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald; and bluesman Jimmy Reed did indeed once throw up on his new Shure microphone, which he took home and cleaned with a toothbrush and kept right on using. There are a lot more, as one might expect after 40 years on the road. More than a person would want to talk about but he could sit down and write songs about them, and he has. Especially in his latest album, "Nothing Personal," which is spirited, tender, raw, funny, and in fact very personal.

His first solo album, "Victim of Life's Circumstances," was released in 1975, which was about the time I bought it; since then I've added 8 others and they all sound just like he sounds on stage they all sound good, especially in a truck.

He's won awards over the years, including a Grammy in 1992 for a duet with Bonnie Raitt, "Good Man/ Good Woman," and he's had a couple of top 10 hits as well, ("Givin' It Up For Your Love" and "Everytime I Roll the Dice") but to a lot of us a big part of the pleasure of going to see Delbert is that he's never really been covered by the mainstream media and it's stone-cold obvious that he's a whole lot better than 98% of what you see on television; he's the kind of artist that working musicians go to see, if they've got that night off and they can scrape a few bucks together. They go to see him and then they go back to their own bands and try to learn a couple more of his tunes.

He's not letting up, still doing about 180 gigs a year, himself and the band criss-crossing the country on a bus; one bus, no truck, the gear stashed in the belly the way it used to be (the Dixie Chicks, to grab an example out of the air, are nowadays preceded to a gig by 13 tractor-trailer rigs). On the phone he sounds exactly like you'd expect: straight-forward and not given to unnecessary small talk. I asked what it was like working with guitarist Roy Buchanan, a personal favorite of mine, and he said, "Well, I had not met him until I worked with him on that one album (Buchanan's "Dancing on the Edge"); I saw him two times after that. I sat in with him one time at the Bottom Line in New York and did the San Francisco Blues Festival with him. Those three times were the only times I was ever around him, but we got along -- hit it off real good." If he knew anything about Roy's famously self-destructive behavior, he was not about to give it out.

He said that life is good these days. Asked if he had anything to add to that which had already been written about him, he said "No, I'd have to tell a lie, if I was gonna try to do that."
"Well, that might be alright."
"No, I better not... I get in trouble tellin' lies. I'm not gonna do that any more."

There was something in the way he said it that made me believe it.

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974.

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