Delbert McClinton Makes Fun Music for Old People

Glen Clark and Delbert McClinton

Before there were Delbert McClinton albums — all the roadhouse-worthy collections he’s released on rock, country, blues and Americana labels over the past four decades — there were Delbert & Glen albums. McClinton and his singing and songwriting partner Glen Clark made an underappreciated pair of them before parting ways to do their own things in the mid-‘70s.

In the years since, McClinton has traded lines and licks with many a high-profile singer, Bonnie Raitt and Tanya Tucker to name two. But something just feels right about him circling back around for a new Delbert & Glen album, Blind, Crippled and Crazy.

Back in the day, McClinton and Clark were fun and funky, droll and down-home. And even as grizzled veterans, they’re still all those things. CMT Edge caught up with McClinton to chat about the new project.

CMT Edge: There’s an immediately identifiable country, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and blues-blending Delbert McClinton sound. I know you grew up in Texas, ground zero for Western swing and honky-tonk and that you were an impressionable kid when rock ‘n’ roll hit and that you were playing in clubs, often with black musicians, from a young age. So how did you come to claim that whole thing as your native musical territory?

McClinton: These were real beer joints back in that time. You kinda had to play a little bit of Merle Haggard and a little B.B. King and whatever else in between. We adapted and enjoyed it.

Growing up in West Texas, you can’t help but hear Bob Wills and Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and all those guys, great country artists from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Then my family moved to Fort Worth in 1951. A few years after we moved, rock ‘n’ roll started catching on. That was about ’54. Of course, segregation was still in full swing there. Dallas had a radio station, KNOK. They played all the great race artists. Well, it wasn’t really called that [race records] in the ‘50s, but it was in the ‘40s. They played stuff that we wanted to hear.

When I had a band, we started backing up these [blues] guys as they’d come through town — Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lightnin’ Slim, Buster Brown — you know, all these guys. And that’s the guys I learned to play harmonica from.

You mentioned moving to Fort Worth. That’s where Glen Clark was. I know you got your partnership rolling out in L.A., but were you at least of aware of each other back in Texas?

Oh, yeah. Glen’s about 10 years younger than me. We used to have band practice, and the guy who was playing drums at the time, Glen was a friend of the drummer’s little brother. And they would hang out over there where we were playing. Then all of a sudden [Glen] was playing and singing. Around the mid to late ‘60s, he was playing music and working in bands. We weren’t in any bands together at that time, but we spent our lives in beer joints and on bandstands.

In the early ‘70s, he took off for California. I was in a marriage that was just really in the toilet. So when that started shattering, I went to California, and we hooked up out there. … Long story short, I went out there, and Glen and I went and started writin’ and singin’ together. We had the use of Paramount Recording Studio in L.A. We had a spec deal with them that we could use the studio and record, and if we got a deal, we’d pay them then.

Earl McGrath was best friends with Ahmet Ertegun, who was the guy at Atlantic Records. Well, Earl wanted to have his own label, so he put together Clean Records. … He heard the stuff we were doing and came in the studio where we were recording and offered us a recording deal. And we were thrilled to death. So we did two records on Clean. And then Glen and I, we both had different ideas of what we wanted to do, because those records, they made some noise among contemporaries more than anything. But they’re good records.

Those two records had sizzle, but they pretty much fizzled commercially. There were other acts in California that were taking different approaches to country-rock, like the Eagles, and finding more commercial success.

What did you make of the fact that country-rock without R&B flavor was getting further than what you guys were doing?

Well, we were like little baby chickens out there in the first place. We didn’t know [anything]. It was the first time I’d ever been to L.A.

The important part was that we were so hungry. Glen and I were talking just yesterday about how hungry we were and that we didn’t have a pot to piss in, so to speak, but it was the happiest time of our lives. Because we still were plannin’ on changing the world. We were young enough to still think there was hope. (laughs)

In the new song “Good as I Feel Today,” you sing, “There’s nothing worth doing if it ain’t fun.” At first, it might seem like a no-brainer that performers would want to have fun doing what they’re doing, but there can be so many other critical and commercial considerations in play.

You’re right. There are so many other considerations. But Glen and I both reached a point in our lives where he’s had a great career and I’ve had a great career. …We were both not really trying to impress anybody anymore.

Us singing together has always been something that both of us have really enjoyed. We jump parts when we sing harmonies and stuff, which is, some would say, a very unnatural thing to do or a very un … I don’t know. Just un.

Not the way you’re supposed to, in other words.

We sing the way we feel. If one of us jumps to a higher part, the other one automatically goes to a lower part, and it’s always been that way with me and him. So it makes it kind of an up-on-two-wheels thing. Like I said, at this point, we’re doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it because it’s fun. And we don’t have anybody chewing on us for doing this or doing that or hurrying up or slowing down. We do pretty much what we wanna do.

A number of performers of your generation have switched gears as they’ve gotten older and started making music that feels more self-consciously serious or dignified. I love that you’re still making streetwise, playful, sexy music.

We don’t have to work for it, as much as we have to work because of it. Because it’s just coming out, you know, the music and lyrics. Which is wonderful that it still drives us like it does. When we go in and record something, I can’t stand lousy lyrics. It’s important that the words are the right words, and words are so much fun.

Especially yours. You inject humor into talking about the ways of life and love.

Well, there’s only two things to write about, unless you want to write about politics — and that’s loving to hate somebody or hating to love somebody. I mean, basically. You can start carving that into whatever.

Some of the new songs talk about growing older and wising up without leaving the good times behind. Is that what it means to you to act your age in your music?

All my life, just about every song I’ve ever written, regardless of how big a loss it’s about, I always put some hope in there. You know, it’s never a completely dismal, downward-spiraling situation. There’s always a key in there somewhere — “I can make it if” or “I’ll be alright when” or “ain’t no big deal.” I think it’s important to leave a way out or at least hope for a way out. And that’s where you can add the sass, you know?

Just this morning, I was reading Nelson George’s book The Death of Rhythm and Blues. He makes the point that rock ‘n’ roll was music for young people, but the R&B that came before it was music for all ages. That could apply to your music, too.

Well, I like to think of it as fun music for old people. (laughs) I host a cruise every year, and a couple of years ago, the funniest thing happened. I was on the cruise and I was walking somewhere, and there was a guy coming toward me, a guy that was even older than me. When we got up to where we were about to pass, he stepped over in front of me with the biggest grin, and he said, “I had no idea old people could have this much fun.” It was quite the compliment.