Q&A with legendary Texas musician Delbert McClinton - odyssey across the American Roots map and beyond

"I think it’s an indispensable part of our lives. We couldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for all of the music that came out of the south, the music that came into this country through Louisiana to the North Coast. That’s where the blues music came in."

Delbert McClinton: Ulysses Of American Roots Music

Tall, Dark, & Handsome (2019, Thirty Tigers/Hot Shot Records), the follow-up to Delbert McClinton’s 2016 Prick of the Litter, offers the easy balance of experience and adventure that has characterized his career for more than sixty years. With this, his 26th original album, Delbert celebrates the strength of his songwriting expertise, the energy of his live performances, and the drive of his touring band. Fourteen new, original songs, all written or co-written by Delbert, gain momentum as they take the listener on a musical odyssey across the map, moving gracefully from big band to jazz to blues and swing. A dash of tango and a rough-edged, romantic ballad illustrate the diversity, depth, and range of Delbert as an artist, producer, songwriter and musician.

Delbert is the definition of road warrior, having traveled the highways from coast to coast for each of those 62 years. Rolling Stone calls him the “Godfather of Americana Music,” and rightfully so. Delbert’s musical style grew from his Texas roots. A little Tejano. A little Bob Wills. Throw in some Jimmy Reed harmonica. Add a splash of Big Joe Turner, and a big band horn section. He has also been nominated for Grammys in the Country category, and has been featured in media from the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post. He has developed a sound that continues to serve him well, as evidenced by the three Grammy Awards for Contemporary Blues on his mantel.

Born in Lubbock, raised in Fort Worth, and now with homes in Austin, Nashville, and San Miguel de Allende, Delbert recognizes that he has been One Of The Fortunate Few. He grew up with a backstage pass to some of the most significant moments in American culture and music history. This year, he received the fifth prestigious sidewalk star in Austin’s historic Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue, an honor that he shares with only two other musicians (Lyle Lovett and Jerry Jeff Walker) and two celebrated actors (Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, of "Greater Tuna" fame). Also in 2019, The Nobelity Project, which has honored Dan Rather, Kris Kristofferson, and many more, awarded Delbert McClinton with the prestigious Feed the Peace Award, as a dedicated and generous supporter of many great causes throughout Texas and the nation.

From his early Fort Worth bands, the Straitjackets and the Rondels, to his current band, Self‑Made Men + Dana, he continues to play sold‑out concert halls and dance halls, historical theatres and music festivals. A major player in several waves of the national surge of Texas music popularity, Delbert has performed multiple times on Saturday Night Live, has been featured on Austin City Limits seven times, as one of the most celebrated guests on the popular series; and appeared on many other national television shows. His career truly defines Americana music: Delbert’s unique story of American history – with big horns, a strong rhythm section and a hot harmonica lead. To borrow from one of the songs on Tall, Dark & Handsome, whether he’s doing a live show or a recording, you can be assured that Delbert McClinton “don’t leave no chicken on the bone.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Jeremy Fetzer, Michael Ochs, Delbert McClinton's ArchiveAll rights reserved

Special Thanks: Katerina Lefkidou (transcription) & Betsie Brown (Blind Raccoon)

Before we go into the new album, I would like to ask you what do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?

Delbert: The reality of it.

And what are your hopes and fears for the future of the music?

Delbert: I don’t know how to answer that cause really, I don’t know. And it’s different about every ten years there’s a whole new era in music. Right now, I think there’s too many people in the kitchen. (laughter)

What would you say characterizes your new album in comparison to your previous album? What would you say is the difference between your new album and the previous ones?

Delbert: In this album we’ve been doing some re-inventing of the music. I’ve been working with this band that I’m with for about the last six and a half years and I think and we’ve become so close and we all had such an admiration for each other that we’re doing things that are remarkable like that.

What are the lines that connect roots music from American blues, to country, to swing and beyond?

Delbert: I think the first big influence in American music happened in the twenties around about the time electricity came in. That started a whole new era in everything but blues you  got to recognise the blues of the black man because that’s the starting part as far as I can tell. It started in people singing work songs and music just grows from personal inspiration.

"I don’t know, I’ve never looked at it that way, but now that you’ve asked it I think it is truly a state of mind. Because the people who were really singing the blues, BB King for example of heart-wrecking tales of working men and women dying and getting beat up. But the music that was played, that’s where they bring up the joy." (Delbert McClinton / Photo by Michael Ochs)

Sixty years on the road, sixty years of experience in music what are the most important lessons you have learned from your past, after 6 decades of music?

Delbert: Well I’ve learned a lot, I’ve learned you got to be true to yourself or you can’t do it. I think that’s probably the most important thing. If you get this far into something as I am and it’s pretty obvious, I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it because I love it. The money would be nice. (chuckles) That’s not what I’m doing it for, I’m doing it because I love it.

Mr. McClinton you are also a strong songwriter. Where does your creative drive of lyrics come from and how do you want your songs to affect people?

Delbert: Well I think the issue in my songs is pretty evident what I want them to do and what they’re designed to do. All my songs are mostly little short stories that could be acted in a play. It’s just little stories of things that have happened to me, things that have happened to other people, everyday things in life. The frets and tortures of humans. Every day long and you got to deal with it. And how you deal with it, that’s who you are, it’s how you deal with it.

Too many studio sessions with Self - Made Men + Dana. Really what’s your favourite memory from studio sessions?

Delbert: Oh, that’s easy. I would have to say the whole thing. We had so much fun making this record. Since, I’ve been playing with this band, I have a home in Mexico and we’ve been going down there, we were shutting everything out and turning off cell phones and writing songs and eating good food and enjoying the atmosphere. So, it’s a place we go to and all the times we go, we come back with 3,4 songs. So that’s what we did, when we were moving in to record this album, we had it all ready to go... And we did so much of it in 3 days that it was astounding. We just had everything, we were pumped up, we were ready, we had to record and we did it.

"I think the first big influence in American music happened in the twenties around about the time electricity came in. That started a whole new era in everything but blues you  got to recognise the blues of the black man because that’s the starting part as far as I can tell. It started in people singing work songs and music just grows from personal inspiration."

Do you miss the "Straitjackets era", do you miss the Straitjackets' years with all these old cats Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed?

Delbert: Well I don’t miss it, because I always got it with me. It’s always right here, I’ve got it, you know, I saw it, I’ve participated, I’ve enjoyed it, I can recall it like it was yesterday and I always have that with me.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you really want to go with a time machine?

Delbert: Well when I was younger, I felt a lot better. (Laughing). There was an awful lot of electricity when Chuck Berry came along. And I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, I don’t know one of those, of course you know it was an awakening. But not just him, you know, I remember going to a midnight movie show in Rock around the Clock. I don’t remember the name of it. It’s in the early fifties. And it’s a midnight show, which meant that was a really big deal for somebody my age to get to go to a midnight movie. So we go and it started as a slow explosion that just kept getting bigger and bigger. That night when that song came on everybody in that theatre just all jumped through the roof, just went crazy.

How hard have the blues and rock and roll influenced your views of the world and the journey you have taken?

Delbert: Well most of my heroes were blues singers, even the white guys, like Hank Williams. They were white men blues you know. When I got turned to the blues in the late fifties, I was fortunate enough, me and my band got to meet a lot of those guys time and time again. They would come all the time to the country and they didn’t have a band with them. We knew their songs, because we were big fans. So, we kind of were in the right place at the right time and getting first hand advice and experience from your heroes.

"Well I think the issue in my songs is pretty evident what I want them to do and what they’re designed to do. All my songs are mostly little short stories that could be acted in a play. It’s just little stories of things that have happened to me, things that have happened to other people, everyday things in life. The frets and tortures of humans.  Every day long and you got to deal with it. And how you deal with it, that’s who you are, it’s how you deal with it."

What is the impact of roots and blues music to the sociocultural implications?

Delbert: I think it’s an indispensable part of our lives. We couldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for all of the music that came out of the south, the music that came into this country through Louisiana to the North Coast. That’s where the blues music came in. I remember those people that came in to New York with a whole different music. It was a lot of orchestras that came over from Europe in the early twentieth century. They were orchestrators and they had all these great jobs making music for movies. All that dramatic orchestrations in a movie. Those were very worthy and charactered men that made that music. It gets overlooked you know? You can’t overlook. It’s hard to overlook the impact of the music that came in from New Orleans. It left across the lower part of the United States, which where everybody crossed, cause the northern part’s too cold. The people that migrated to the West Coast through the lower part of the United States which means that Louisiana, to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia all those states they would go across the country. And Tejano Music, Tex-Mex music, I grew up in Texas and that music was aired all the time, so it became a part of Texas music. ‘Tex Mex’. And the main guy was Bob Wills. He was the guy that really made people open their eyes and take a look at it.

If you would change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality what would that be?

Delbert: I’d like for all the posers to get out.

How do you describe Tall, Dark and Handsome album’s philosophy? What is the philosophy from the new album?

Delbert: I would say the philosophy comes from "Tall, Dark and Handsome" is an unforgettable statement. About 15 years ago I bought these three ceramic figures. One of them is a bass player playing chin down. The other one is a black man standing straight playing the accordion and the guy up front is a pretty heavy guy with a microphone in his hand and a tuxedo. And that’s the picture of the cover. And what that means to me is that in this particular time in my life I don’t have to answer to anything or to anybody about anything and I do what I want and I think this record shows that. 

"This is the happiest time of my life right now. I’m satisfied with what I’m doing, with who I am, I’ve got a family that loves me and I love them and I don’t owe anybody anything and I’ve got a new record coming out." (Delbert McClinton & Self‑Made Men + Dana / Photo by Jeremy Fetzer)

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you and what advice would you like to give to the new generation?

Delbert: I don’t like to give much advice, cause I don’t know the answers. So, try not to do anything you can’t live with.

Do you consider the blues a specific music genre or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Delbert: That’s a really good question. I don’t know, I’ve never looked at it that way, but now that you’ve asked it, I think it is truly a state of mind. Because the people who were really singing the blues, BB King for example of heart-wrecking tales of working men and women dying and getting beat up. But the music that was played, that’s where they bring up the joy. They laid it all out in a song, in a testimony, if you took the music away it sounded like a preaching. So it’s all about conviction, if there’s no conviction, there’s no substance.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?

Delbert: It’s easier in a way. Once you learn how to do something you don’t have to do it forever to keep doing it. In other words you don’t have to live a life in the blues, whether you’re a loser, whether you’re a drunk. By this time in my life I should end a grown man. But I haven’t had grown in knowledge on those feelings that bring about playing joyful music through the blues. It’s just naturally welcome.

You’ve met so many people, so many personalities, great personalities, which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Delbert: So many of them, because in the moment that’s what matters. And I’ve been as excited about one as I’ve been for the other. But I think the one I’ve most admired and I’ve learned the most from in blues music is Jimmy Reed.

What is happiness for you, what is happiness for Delbert?

Delbert: This is the happiest time of my life right now. I’m satisfied with what I’m doing, with who I am, I’ve got a family that loves me and I love them and I don’t owe anybody anything and I’ve got a new record out.

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Photo: Delbert McClinton with With Wendy Goldstein and Delaney McClinton.

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