Cover photo © Bob Kieser
Delbert McClinton is known for his roots rock sound, one that covers everything from blues to country. But what he really wants to do is make people dance.
“My music, you play it in a room, and eight out of seven people are gonna dance,” he says.
Problematic fractions aside, McClinton isn’t pivoting to disco, and he’s not trying to compete with auto-tuned modern pop. Instead he’s doing what he’s always done, which is writing songs people will love. He strives to write popular songs. “I’ve never, ever made a record that I didn’t think was gonna be a big hit,” he says. “So, I’ve got the determination and the confidence. And that’s how it works. You use it at something you love.”
He doesn’t have a formula for a hit; he just knows what they require. “You’ve got to have good songs,” he explains. “Or at least in my world you do. And in the world I came from, you’re gonna have songs that aren’t trash, that aren’t silly, that aren’t stupid, that actually say something, and go from one point to another with a legitimacy that’s obvious. But you’ve got to be able to know how to receive that music, and I don’t think a lot of people have been exposed enough to that kind of music. I think it’s going to be real interesting to see what younger people today think of our interpretation of this music. I’m excited about it. I think they’re gonna like it.”
The interpretation McClinton brings up is Outdated Emotion, his album of covers (plus five originals), spotlighting beloved songs from his youth. He delivers them with his trademark charming twang, never pandering to listeners, but instead sharing his joy with them. Featuring songs by everyone from Little Richard to Amos Milburn to Hank Williams, it’s McClinton reliving his musical glory days. “They’re just songs that I loved then and I love now,” he says. “And so I wanted to share them with people.”
While McClinton relished the opportunity to spend some time with beloved songs, he also saw it as a chance to introduce his influences to younger fans. “The music on this record, there are at least two generations of people that probably never heard it,” he says. “And if it works at all on them like it did on me, and a lot of people, it’ll be a pleasant affair. And that’s what I’m hoping for. I’ve loved these songs for so long and I just want people to know what it was like, what the music was, and how it affected me, and how it still affects me.”
Like visiting an old school and noticing how small everything now looks, in returning to these songs McClinton also went back in time. “So it’s just the music from a time period that I think I was at my best,” he says. “Or at least the memory of it is. Because I was young and I was hungry and I was eager and ready and willing and I could take a punch and get right back up.”
McClinton says picking the songs was easy. “I just started calling [songs out], and naming them all,” he says. “Those songs have been with me since they were hits. And I was there for it. And that’s the history of my music, all of that stuff. Not the complete history, but it runs a pretty good line since the ’40s, when Hank Williams was doing what he did.”
Williams, in particular, looms large in McClinton’s personal and musical history. “I listened to Hank Williams all the way through his career,” McClinton recalls. “I remember when he died. My brother, just older than me, cried his eyes out. We thought he never was going to stop crying. And it affected me the same way, but I wasn’t crying about it. It was like, ‘He can’t be dead. It’s Hank Williams’ [laughs].”
The blues is also a huge part of McClinton’s current sound, and also his musical development. “I heard the blues when I was young boy, under 10 years old,” he says. “I was born and raised in Lubbock, Texas for the first 11 years of my life. And my mother’s youngest sister, most of her records, well all of them, were 78s and they were what you call race records at the time; black people’s music. Once you hear that music and on the other channel, all you’re hearing is Patti Page, you’re gonna love it. You know what I’m saying? Black music has a heart and soul to it. And white people music at the time that we’re talking about was not nearly as exciting.”
The prolific McClinton said he never considered changing any of the covers, nor did he think they could be improved. “I did those songs because I like the way they were done in the first place,” he says. “Mainly the whole thing about this music is the feeling of it. It doesn’t feel like anything that’s going on today.”
McClinton always has own songs cooking, too. “I’ve got enough [songs] to last me until I die,” he says. “Ever since I was a little boy I’ve had a song in my head. I go to sleep with a song in my head. I wake up with a song in my head. And it’s just always been that way. I didn’t pick this for a profession; it picked me.”
Touring is one part of the profession that McClinton is no longer interested in, though. “I do what I want to do, period,” he says. “No commitment. I don’t have to do anything for anybody else. I’m retired…I spent sixty years on the road. It’s enough.”
McClinton says he misses performing, but Covid has made the stage feel like a scary proposition. “At this day and time that we’re living in, it’s just not the same,” he says of live shows. “I can’t get it in my head to go get up on stage in front of a big old roomful of people, and get past looking at them and thinking, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Put a mask on or something.’ I’m not a young guy, so I’m compromised. I’ve had heart surgery. And I can’t imagine going out and getting in front of a lot of people. I wouldn’t feel comfortable. And if you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t want to do something. So, I make records and send it out that way. And I’ll leave the road to the younger people.”
Outdated Emotion’s originals, like the covers, were tracked with the father-and-son team of Kevin and Yates McKendree, in Kevin’s studio. “During Covid I had them at my beck and call,” McClinton says. “And so we’d just go in the studio, the three of us, and we’re just like, on some of those songs, there would be just piano and bass. And then they go back and put the drums on it. And whatever else it needed, but so much of it was done with just me, piano player, bass player. And everything else was added.”
McClinton’s process is writing through revision. “You write it up and down and you’re gonna change it many times,” he says. “You’ll say, ‘This line would be better if we put it under this one. So let’s put this up here. Put that one down here to make more sense.’ That kind of thing, that you juggle. But when you know you got it right is when you like it and you can’t think of anything else you’d do to change it. In fact, you think you’ve got it perfect. That’s the great feeling: when you finish the song that you’ve been working on, that you feel really good about it. It’s a very special [feeling], and I’m addicted to that high. So I like to write songs. I like to write, period.”
He’s inspired by the world around him, but the key is to capture what he sees. “I write anytime I think of or hear somebody say something that I think that can be used in a song,” he says. “I make note of it. I got notes forever. And the thing about making music, in my mind, is you’ve got to take notes and revisit. And I’ve always done that. I’ve been doing that most of the day-to-day on a new song that I’m writing with a couple of guys, friends of mine. We were just fooling around the other day and started this song, and now we got one verse written, and I’ve rewritten that verse and written another verse. So it just comes out, if you allow it to come out.”
In addition to songwriting, McClinton is closely associated with the harmonica, famous for teaching John Lennon how to play it, although McClinton says he just gave the Beatle some tips. On Outdated Emotion, McClinton plays harmonica on only two tracks, though. ” I don’t play a lot of harp anymore,” he says. “I don’t do anything with any regularity anymore like I used to. But some music had to have harmonica: Jimmy Reed’s songs, [“Sun is Shining” and “Ain’t that Lovin’ You”]. I was the biggest Jimmy Reed fan and still am. And there it was. And the other one song, [“I Ain’t Got You”], a good friend of mine, Danny Flowers, he’s a good harp player, and he was there, and I got him to play on it. “
With 27 albums under his belt, McClinton’s had a long and successful career. He notes that he missed out on the “superstar” money, but he has no regrets about that. “I’ve got a really good spot in the music business,” he says. “And I’ve got it because I made it happen and I don’t recall ever really asking advice from anybody. I’ve always got it in my head when I go out, when I start some musical adventure, I’ve got it all in my head. I don’t need to ask anybody what to do.”
McClinton, as you’ve probably gathered by now, is no fan of all modern music, saying the time of death was right at the birth of MTV. “The lyrics went away, and the wardrobe malfunctions took over,” he says of the rise of music videos. And McClinton says mainstream music hasn’t gotten much better since then. But he sees some bright spots, citing Hot Sardines and Postmodern Jukebox as contemporary bands he enjoys. “They’re real people playing real instruments, without any sound gadgets,” he says. “And to me that’s what music is: a genuine, legitimate, real-life person playing something and making it all bring joy to the listener. That’s real-life contact.”
McClinton isn’t a grouch so much as he’s a believer: a believer in making music a certain way. It’s the way McClinton works, the way his heroes worked, and, if all goes according to plan, the way future generations of listeners, spurred on by his music and his covers, will make music. Although plan might be an imprecise way to describe McClinton’s enterprise. It’s more of vocation.
“I’m pretty much what the songs I write are saying,” he says. “[They] define the world in which I live and the people and the music that propels me.”
And if the music just happens to get listeners up on their feet and dancing, then all the better.