PopMatters Books Editor
On the cover of his latest album, Cost of Living, Delbert McClinton radiates contentment. Looking every bit the stylish crooner he did on Room to Breathe (2002) and Nothing Personal (2001), the singer resists the playful vibes of those previous jacket snaps, this time leaning away from the camera, composed and calm. Evidently, after years left hanging by major record companies, the creative independence McClinton enjoys with New West Records, has given the 65-year-old blues great reason to recline.
Don’t think that means he’s slowing down. McClinton’s schedule is as frenzied as ever. He recently returned from a stint at the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway. He was in Canada in August, and will be playing and promoting Cost of Living all over the US through February 2006 and beyond. Though he openly admits promotion is not something he readily enjoys, the amount he’s done of late—perhaps incidentally as the singer would likely be living on the road, album to promote or not—is working. The album is receiving rave reviews, and it’s selling pretty well, too.
Those raves are justified. McClinton’s 18th album and his first in three years, Cost of Living is true to form. And why not? The singer has delivered consistently good music over the years, each album jammed with songs that capture his unique mélange of blues, country, rock, and soul. If Cost of Living differs at all from his previous efforts, it’s due to the resounding sense of personal achievement that emerges with almost every song, particularly “The Part I Like the Best”, “I Had a Real Good Time”, and the marvelous, “One of the Fortunate Few”.
On each of these tracks, McClinton fits his trademark husky vocals over joyful meditations on life’s pleasures, not least of which are women, wine, and song. The album is a dedication to the good life, something McClinton deserves to revel in after enduring a number of career bumps and personal dramas. Those dramas seem long in the past, though, with Cost of Living serving as a sound testament to life lessons truly learned. “There’s a big ol’ world of opportunity for a man who sings the blues,” he sings on “I Had a Real Good Time”, an ode to respecting your wilder side if ever there was one. “You learn a whole lot more about life from the things you’re not supposed to do.” This is a fun, lively record. And it makes an excellent case that one needn’t be sad to sing the blues.
McClinton’s more than happy, too, with the finished product. Speaking to PopMatters from his home in Nashville, the singer revealed that, in his mind, the release of Cost of Living comes at a time he considers the best in his career. “It’s always exciting to have a new record coming out. Especially when you feel like you’ve done it as good as you can do it.”
Exciting, but taxing nevertheless. I spoke to McClinton only a matter of minutes after a long and much-stalled flight home to Tennessee from New York. “I don’t like the promotion side of it,” he said, in his soothing voice. “I’ve spent a lifetime gripping and grinning and smiling for people, which is fine and you gotta do that, but ... I don’t know ... it’s just been there, done that.”
It’s hard not to appreciate that kind of honesty. Harder still to know exactly how to press on with an interview after hearing it. “I know I’m probably sounding like a real asshole,” he says, frank as ever. “But I’m really not. I’m just wore out today.”
He’s exhausted and I’m on the edge of a nervous breakdown, shocked to my socks to be talking to a guy who’s not only been on the forefront and the fringe of rhythm, country, and blues since long before my mum sang me to sleep with Waylon Jennings tunes (from I’ve Always Been Crazy, for Lord’s sake), but a personal God among musical men. It didn’t make for particularly smooth sailing. To his credit, Mr. McClinton wrangled a fair amount of energy to press on with the project considering the length of his day.
Our conversation hit its stride when its focus shifted to music. McClinton said his blurring of genre lines comes from a childhood spent listening to so many different kind of music that his “mashing together” of styles was an unconscious part of his own natural evolution as a writer and performer. “Get five people together and every one of them would call it something different. It’s not just blues. I have this history as a blues player, but I grew up in West Texas on the music of the ‘40s, which was a lot of Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Patti Page, Nat King Cole and Charles Brown and Amos Milburn. Then I moved to Fort Worth when I was 11 years old. Shortly after that I discovered blues music so I’ve got this background with all these different flavors of music.”
Clearly energized by talk of his craft, McClinton recalled events and discussed his varied inspirations with a meditative, yet vital, tenor to his voice. I asked him how he manages to twist phrases and turn lyrics, rhyming at whip-crack speed in a manner that has become a McClinton staple. Is it a gift, or a studied technique that takes an amount of time to perfect? “It’s kind of a natural thing,” he said. “When I was a kid, before I ever wrote song, when I was little kid in elementary school, I would write poetry just because it was in my head. I know that I’ve got a talent that’s something special and I have to work more because of it rather than for it.”
He’s in his element on Cost of Living. “The Part I Like the Best”, for instance, is like the honky-tonk version of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman”, substituting Joel’s flawed but refined woman with a reckless beauty who loves skinny-dipping as much as she loves her man: “She’s never in a rush, conspicuous / She makes it look so easy / It’s ridiculous”. “Dead Wrong” is another lyrical treasure. It, too, is about a girl in search of love, this time from her father: “She called her daddy from a pay phone / He said you’re living in sin / You can come back home / But you can’t come in”. This one ends in a tragic moment that McClinton narrates with perfectly timed and structured rhymes.
McClinton, humble as ever, sums up his talent simply: “It’s going on in my head and it’s gotta come out.”
I asked Mr. McClinton of the differences writing by himself or with a partner or team of writers. Cost of Living features just two songs with McClinton credited as the sole composer. “I’d rather write it all myself,” he said. “I figure it’s real when I write it myself.” Still, he’s a fan of collaboration. “I’ve got a few songwriter friends that I really enjoy writing with, and I know that every time we [write], we’re gonna get something good.” Does he start with a story idea or a piece of music? “Usually an idea, or the music will set it in motion. When I go to write with somebody, sometimes I’ll have an idea or they’ll have an idea, or sometimes we don’t have any idea, and then we just sit down and we start beating around on guitars and talking and usually always something will come about.”
The album’s standout song, combining McClinton’s musical timelessness and supreme songwriting capabilities, is “Down in Mexico”. The song is about a man duped by his woman and his lust for easy money. “That’s when she told me ‘bout her lover man / That’s when I knew I was in a terrible mess / She took the blame / He took the money / I took a bullet in my chest,” McClinton sings on what is a true dirty blues classic about love, greed, anger, and revenge.
“It started from the fact that we bought a house in Mexico about two or three years ago and we love to go down there,” he said of the song, co-written with longtime writing partner, Gary Nicholson. “That inspired about three or four songs. The day that we wrote that one we’d just come back from Mexico. We got to talking and Gary was talking about being out in a casino in Vegas once where they had a million dollars up on the wall. And that all kinda started ringing into rhythm and rhyme.”
I asked Mr. McClinton if, throughout his lifetime of highs and lows, struggles and successes, his inspiration had altered. “I don’t think so. I don’t write political songs. Everything I write, if you boil it down to the minimum, it’s either hating to love somebody or loving to hate somebody. [My songs are] always about things that happen in the every day,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy songwriting. It’s a wonderful instant gratification.”
It’s hard to miss the passion here. McClinton says he’s as excited about his music today as he was when he started out. “I think you kinda have to feel that way if you’re going to have any endurance. That’s something that has just stayed with me always. [Music is] a wonderful thing because I can always go to it and come back from any kind of distress and that’s a really beautiful thing.”