The influential yet underrated singer-songwriter and harmonica player talks about his new biography, playing wild and woolly juke joints, and the “very f---ing stupid” state of country music today.
Delbert McClinton has led a life that would make a great movie, if perhaps one that requires a little suspension of disbelief. It might be something like Crazy Heart meets Walk the Line meets — you guessed it — Forrest Gump, whose title character McClinton is often compared to because of his lifelong penchant for finding himself at crucial moments in the history of music. He led house bands that backed Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddly, Muddy Waters, and more. He helped usher in the progressive country music movement that put Austin, Texas, on the music map. And he headlined shows in England with the Beatles early enough in their career that the notion of John, Paul, Ringo, and George opening for anyone wouldn’t seem preposterous.
More than 60 years after his music career began, the 77-year-old McClinton is still touring, recording, and putting on the annual Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches Cruise. And now, if a filmmaker wants to tackle such an epic project, there’s a biography that could serve as source material for the script. Diana Finlay Hendricks’ Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few (Texas A&M University Press, 2017) chronicles his winding path through his World War II-era Texas youth in Lubbock and Fort Worth to his early roadhouse career to writing hits for the likes of Emmylou Harris and duets with Tanya Tucker and Bonnie Raitt.
McClinton claims he still hasn’t read the book, but Hendricks did read him chapters to fact-check everything.
“There were a couple places where he said, ‘Uh, are you going to put that in the book?’” she says. “In the middle, he was saying, ‘I had completely forgotten about that.’ Toward the end, it was, ‘Is this the hill you’re going to die on?’”
McClinton and Hendricks talked to C&I about the recent book, which she researched and wrote with help from McClinton’s journals, letters, and more than 300 hours of interviews with the man and his family, friends, and fellow musicians. Following are a selection of our favorite responses.
Delbert McClinton talked about his childhood in Lubbock and how his parents would take the whole family out to the Cotton Club, where they would dance and kids would stay outside and throw dirt clods at each other or try to sneak a peek through the windows:
Cowboys & Indians: Was that when you decided you wanted to be a musician?
Delbert McClinton: That led up to it. When we were in Fort Worth, my parents went square dancing every Wednesday night. I went because they had a live band, and that was thrilling to me. ’Course they had a guy doing square-dance calls, but there was still a live band. I think the time I realized I might really be onto something was about 1952. I was in Sweetwater, Texas, staying with my aunt and uncle, and my uncle was the meanest old fella in the world when he was drinking. And he overheard me singing in the backyard and came running out the back door and said, “Who is that singing?” Scared the s--- out of all of us. ... But he said, “Boy, that’s great,” and got my aunt to come out there and had me sing it again.
On his early gigs:
McClinton: We played all the beer joints out on Jacksboro Highway [a notorious stretch of road from downtown Fort Worth to Lake Worth that was home to various forms of hell-raising] that in the early ’50s was all gun-toting outlaws, gun-toting people out there. But it just seemed like that’s the way it is, you know? It was that way even up into the ’60s. I remember in the ’60s going up to play on Christmas night. That was always a big night, not Christmas Eve but Christmas night. Everybody came to the beer joint. I drove up and got out of my car and was headed to the door, and this other guy and his girlfriend had pulled up at the same time, and he got out of his car and was going, “Hey y’all, come here, I want to show you something.” I walked over there — his name was Johnny Dyer — and I walked over there, and he pulled out this nickel-plated .45, Colt .45 automatic: “This is what my baby got me for Christmas!” [Laughter all around.]
Diana Finlay Hendricks: Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a nickel-plated Colt .45!
McClinton: Anyway, it was crazy. There was a group of guys. One of them was so very short, almost a midget. He had the wildest, craziest guys. They come in the beer joint, about four of ’em, and they sent him over to start a fight with the biggest son of a bitch in there. And as soon as he swung, the rest of them come in there ready to fight. I remember the night this happened, we were all planning on spending the night out in the woods, and we had shotguns with us. ... I remember thinking, Well, I got a shotgun out in the car, but that’s as far as I’m getting, because I’m not about to go get it and bring it in here. And these guys came in and beat the s--- out of anyone that moved. ...
Hendricks: And y’all just kept playing.
McClinton: We just kept playing, that was the whole idea. They’d say, “Play louder!” ... They never lasted very long, and by the time these guys leave, there was blood on the floor, blood on this and that, blood on everything. It was awful, but it wasn’t unusual.
On collaborations and the state of music today:
C&I: You’ve collaborated with a mind-boggling number of other highly regarded artists. Who’s one that you’d still like to work with?
McClinton: I don’t know. I’d like to do a duet with Tina Turner. And Lady Gaga. She’s the bomb, boy.
Hendricks: Who in the country world would you be interested in doing something with — that you haven’t? Because you’ve done things with so many.
McClinton: Nobody that’s alive that I can think of. Willie.
Hendricks: You’ve done stuff with Willie.
McClinton: Well, Willie’s Willie. He’s not part of country music today. Country music today is very f---ing stupid. It’s pandering. It is nothing but pandering.
Hendricks: What about Chris Stapleton?
McClinton: Chris is great, but I can’t see us doing a song together. I just can’t see it. ... Let me tell you the best way I can explain the way I think about country music. I’m at the DMV standing in line, and they have GAC, the country music channel, going. But the sound’s off, so all the lyrics are going across the bottom. I was laughing out loud, laughing out loud at the stupidity, at the pandering of that f---ing bunch of s---. Dumbest f---ing s--- I ever heard in my life. That’s not music, that’s stupidity. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.