When I was a young lad, I spent way too much of my teen years in Memphis, soaking up that town’s rich history of music• among other things, but that’s neither here nor there. Apart from the straight blues, country, and the variety of rock sounds that bent the curious listener’s ear, there was one sound that percolated out of the dingy pre-Planet Hollywood clubs up and down Beale Street, the dives around Memphis and the surrounding area, and the smoky juke joints that populated less-than-respectable areas that made up my stomping grounds in Tennessee, Alabama, and my native Mississippi. This sound was, for lack of a better term, roadhouse rock and roll, and it was and is beautiful.
Just what exactly is roadhouse is something of a poser when one tries to explain it to the uninitiated. It’s white guys playing blues, but it’s not blues rock, even though such string benders as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Tinsley Ellis can certainly bang out some roadhouse-ready tunes when called upon. While there’s nary a fiddle or steel guitar to be heard, it’s definitely got a healthy dose of twang to it. Plus, Elvis knows it’s gotta rock or it ain’t roadhouse. Frankly, it’s all about the atmosphere when you get down to brass tacks. Roadhouse is thick smoke and loud music, hard whiskey and harder women, and midnight with two more bottles of wine and nowhere to go. It’s probably easier to drop a few names, I suppose, such as The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Del-Lords, Jeff Healey, and the like, but to truly get to the heart and soul of roadhouse music, one merely has to turn to the King of the Beer Joints, one Delbert McClinton. He’s got the strut to let you know that while he may be the baddest cat in the bar, he knows how to treat his good woman. His smoky, raw vocals are able to get across feelings of pain, joy, and humor, sometimes all within the same song. And, good Lord, can that man wail on some harmonica. McClinton’s music – like roadhouse rock itself – is a bit hard to nail down into one easily defined category, but it’s honest and it’s real. Delbert McClinton wouldn’t bullshit you, buddy.
“I wouldn’t know how to [categorize] anybody’s music, much less mine,” the 60-year-old musician laughs. “The definition is in what you hear; whatever it is to you is what it is. I grew up playing in honky tonks all my life and I learned from the days when songs were short stories. I built on that.”
McClinton knows from whence he speaks. As a young man more than four decades ago, he backed legends like Howlin’ Wolf in his native Texas and later taught a young Liverpudllian rocker named John Lennon a few riffs on harmonica. He absorbed the best of both worlds – from the Wolf’s badder-than-the-baddest blues shouting to The Beatles’ eye for songcraft – to become a singular American voice in his own right, with a small but fervent following. McClinton’s a distinctive artist who wears his influences on his sleeve, but like fellow Texas genre benders Willie Nelson or Doug Sahm, he’s more than just the sum of his parts.
“I had really good on-the-job training,” he explains. “When I started playing harp, I was fortunate enough to play with my heroes like Sonny Boy Williamson [Rice Miller, the second “Sonny Boy”] and Jimmy Reed. In fact, the second record I made was a Sonny Boy song called ‘Wake Up Baby.'”
Now with almost 20 years as a solo recording artist under his belt and over 16 records to his credit, one would expect the rocker to be resting on his laurels, but that would be selling Delbert McClinton short. Recently signed to the indie label New West, McClinton’s released one of the finest records of his career, Nothing Personal. The album is classic Delbert, with blistering roadhouse rockers like “Squeeze Me In” and “Livin’ It Down” – which includes the killer line “My ship came in and she sunk it/I was the toast of the town and she drunk it” – matched with Dixieland jazz, ballads, and country efforts. Plus, Nothing Personal includes one McClinton’s loveliest tunes to date, a devastatingly beautiful tale of love and loss set to a Mexican rhythm called “Rita’s Gone.” McClinton says his new record benefited from New West’s policy of giving its artists complete control over the finished product, allowing McClinton to full explore his rowdy musical muse.
“I took my time doing it, I lived with it, and I got to know it note for note,” he points out. “I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulders. Beyond that, it’s a collection of more varied songs than I’ve ever done. I didn’t have to chase radio [with this record], I just did the songs I liked.
“A lot of music today is so manufactured and homogenized. God, it wears me out. I know the people now are more dissatisfied with radio than they ever were. I know I am.”
Ahhh, the pursuit of the radio hit, the eternal bane of the artist. McClinton’s well aware his current record, like most of his recorded output, isn’t exactly going to set the Top 40 afire, particularly in this day of carbon-copy divas, cookie-cutter boy bands and by-the-numbers rock outfits. Still, he’s cool with that and so is his fan base, which includes middle-aged types enjoying their one weekend a month out and younger folks hungry for a time when music was real, honest, and not packaged by the marketing department for maximum sales. Quite simply, McClinton knows he makes good music and he knows people who would appreciate it will find it sooner or later.
“Good music is good music,” he says. “Back when I started playing music, everybody wasn’t doing it like they are now. Most of these record companies like puppets who’ll do what they say, but the bottom line is crème comes to the top. If [the kids] hear nothing but shit, they gotta pick a favorite. But if you expose them to something unique, genius is easily recognized.”
McClinton’s history bears him out. Getting his start in the bucket-of-blood honky tonks of his native Texas, McClinton first made his mark on the big-time circuit when his harp work was heard on Bobby Channel’s hit “Hey Baby.” The resulting tour found him in England, where he taught John Lennon the basics of harmonica. He spent the majority of the ’60s behind the scenes, fronting The Rondells, who had a Hot 100 hit with “If You Really Want Me To, I’ll Go.” He later hit the charts with Glen Clark as Delbert & Glen in the ’70s, and his songs were made into country hits by such mega-stars as Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris.
McClinton’s first mainstream exposure came via John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers, when the comedic pair used his “B-Movie Box Car Blues” on their first record. Since then, McClinton’s been churning out eclectic roadhouse rock records that haven’t exactly made him a household name, but do consistently win the hearts of critics as well as fans of good, solid music. He really hasn’t varied his approach much since the early days, but his style and sound remain fresh with simplicity and quality overruling any chasing of trends like far too many of his peers do to “keep with the times.”
For certain, McClinton’s music is nothing new – seems like there’s always been hard-luck heroes blaring out tales of loveable losers and honky tonk angels somewhere – and there’s no denying most of the current blues and blues-rock artists do little more than repeat the same old shuffle. Still, McClinton’s always managed to keep the familiar fresh, be it hits like “Every Time I Roll The Dice,” “Two More Bottles Of Wine,” “Giving It Up For Your Love” or his 1991 Grammy-winning debut with fellow barroom rocker Bonnie Raitt, “Good Man, Good Woman.”
“Hell, as long as it’s something you love as much as I do, all you gotta do is look around for new material,” McClinton says. “A new story is an old story and the relationship between men and women, hell, it’d doesn’t change. The only change is the people going through it think it’s the first time anyone’s ever gone through it, which is bullshit.
“The only thing that can get stale is if you keep beating the same drum, and I think I’ve changed the beat of the drum with each new record.”
A lot of McClinton’s appeal comes from his Lone Star State background. There’s just something so• Texas about his music and, in that, something so American about it. Texas has a history of churning out stunningly unique artists, and McClinton’s no exception. Hell, like fellow genre-twister Doug Sahm said, “You just can’t be from Texas if you ain’t got lots of soul.” There’s a certain amount of truth to that, though McClinton himself is at a loss to explain just why that’s so.
“Best answer I can give you comes from this book called Folksongs of North America by [legendary producer and musicologist] John Lomax,” he says. “The inside of the book showed a color chart of the different influences of American music and more musical influences came together in Texas. When I noticed that, I thought that’s the best answer to why Texas music is so unique.
“Necessity breeds invention and people in the old days were singing about everyday living and singing with conviction. The harder pressed they were, the more conviction they sang with. That’s soul, man.”
Looking his 61st birthday in the face, McClinton shows no signs of slowing down whatsoever. He still keeps up a rigorous touring schedule as well as his hugely popular Blues Cruises. He’s also currently in the process of re-recording some of his classic tunes in an effort to get a sound closer to what he was looking for when he recorded them but only now has the convenience to do. And while he’s become a part the American sound and he’s enjoyed success in the business way beyond his wildest dreams, McClinton’s heart is still in the roadhouse, and that’s where it’ll always be.
“It never stops in my head, it’s going on all the time,” he explains. “The first thing I did this morning was pick up my guitar because there was something going on in my head. When that stops, I’ll lay down the guitar. But until then, I just can’t stop.”
That’s soul, man.