While many things may change over the years, the attitudes and vibes of your average roadhouse don’t. In those places of smoky haze and neon lighting, people are pretty much concerning themselves with the same issues as the generations before them. So why should the music be any different? Sure, regional styles may vary—it’s unlikely that a Mississippi juke joint will offer the same fare as a place on the outskirts of Austin—but the basic need is the same. You need songs for slow-dancing, songs for kicking up your heels, songs for crying in your beer, songs for mourning your most recent ghost, and songs for wooing your next sweetheart.
Delbert McClinton knows this, and he’s never really aspired to anything but providing soundtracks for the salt of the earth. Apart from the occasional superstar guest, his records rarely delve into virtuosity, and his lyrics are of the plainspoken variety, as if too much poetry gets in the way of what needs to be said.
He’s known as one of the best harmonica players on the planet, and his presence has added a much needed dose of R&B/rock/blues legitimacy to plenty of recordings. Nothing Personal, though, finds him in more of a singer/songwriter mode. The album marks only the third time that a McClinton album is dominated by tracks that McClinton wrote, or at least co-wrote, and the result is a batch of songs that often belies the album’s title.
The slowest cuts are probably the most effective. They’re filled with the sort of details that are informed by personal history. The south-of-the-border soaked “When Rita Leaves” features the stark image of a Ford Mustang getting torched. “Don’t Leave Home Without It” describes the items that a lover places in his traveling lady’s suitcase. “Birmingham Tonight” wallows in a teetering Southern drawl that’s accentuated by Iris Dement on backing vocals.
Almost as effective as the love songs (or songs of leaving love) are the midtempo cuts like “Baggage Claim” or “Desperation”. In these songs, McClinton assumes a wry J.J. Cale sound. Perhaps the album’s only weakness is in the faster-paced, bar-brand cuts, where McClinton’s crack band (especially Benmont Tench on keyboards), manages to hit many a fine groove, yet never raises cuts like “Livin’ It Down” or “Squeeze Me In” to special heights. Probably compounding this impression is the relative absence of McClinton’s fiery harp work. But performed live, I’m guessing these cuts would tear the roof off.
Overall, in Nothing Personal, McClinton sings songs of reflection that only the years can bring on. If he doesn’t have the fire he once had, so what? As he puts it in “Watchin’ the Rain”, “Got all my snakes back in the box / Now I’m where I wanna be”.