"I'm Just Bad-Assed": An Interview with Delbert McClinton
Veteran singer-songwriter returns from heart surgery with a new label with a new career high in the form of Prick of the Litter.
At 76, Delbert McClinton doesn't have to prove anything, something that's evident on his latest recording, Prick of the Litter. It's an easy-going collection of songs that sounds both effortless and wise. There's humor and heartache and a gamut of emotions that land squarely between. McClinton has, in many ways, a new lease on life: after major heart surgery, he banished nicotine from his life, left behind a record company that couldn't quite get its head around who he was or where he wanted to go with his own music. He plays gigs at a comfortable pace and, with a classic Texas drawl, may be one of the most welcoming conversationalists you're likely to encounter.
"I feel like I'm 50 again", he says now, "I feel like I've got to do what I want to do and get better at it."
His disarming manner is important. A quick sketch of his career to this moment in time almost eludes comprehension: he grew up in Lubbock, gigged around the Lone Star State on stages with Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and other blues and roots legends. He crossed the Atlantic in the early 1960s with Bruce Channel who was riding high on the success of the hit "Hey! Baby" and, as the well-worn story goes, gave John Lennon pointers on harmonica. By the early 1970s he had partnered with Glen Clark for a pair of remarkable and inventive records before launching a career under his own name. By the end of that decade Emmylou Harris had taken his "Two More Bottles of Wine" to the top of the charts and The Blues Brothers recorded another of his pieces, "B-Movie Box Car Blues" for their smash Briefcase Full of Blues LP. The following decades would bring further success and collaborations with Tanya Tucker and Bonnie Raitt. A variety of awards, including a 2006 Grammy for The Cost of Living.
McClinton doesn't carry that history into conversation, though, instead choosing to focus on the matter at hand, running down the story of Prick of the Litter and Self-Made Men, the unit that helped the 12 songs that comprise it come to life. The group, which includes Bob Britt (guitar), Kevin McKendree (keyboards), Mike Joyce (bass), Jack Bruno (drums) and Quentin Ware (trumpet), has a little more than three years' time with the vocalist but that, it becomes clear, has been time well-spent.
"We've become as one", he says of the collective. "We can't wait to get on stage together. It's like falling in love again."
His praise for the band is effusive, pointing out that the members allowed him to stretch in new musical directions. "I've been playing guitar my whole life but I'm still not very good," he says. "I use a pull and jerk method. I can write a song here and there but I don't know a lot of chords. These guys know 'em all." The idea behind Prick was fairly simple: McClinton wanted to, in his words, write songs he couldn't play the chords to and deliver a record that contained, precisely, zero percent bullshit.
"So," he offers, "that's what I did."
More precisely, he built a collection of new standards. Always comfortable straddling musical lines, McClinton touches on blues, jazz and R&B, often simultaneously on material such as the opening bruiser "Bad Haircut" and the strut and shout majesty of "Don't Do It". There's a dose of the appropriately sentimental in "Like Lovin' Used to Be" and plenty of sweetness to "Jones for You". He finds time to celebrate life in Mexico via "San Miguel" and some sweltering groove in "Middle of Nowhere". (There's also some gritty nastiness in "Neva".) Taken together, Prick of the Litter serves as a deeply memorable and touching release from an American great. True McClinton's own words, the band finds all the right touches with the material, whether Britt's soulful, letter-perfect note bends or McKendree's equally moving keyboard touches.
Nowhere in the material is there a sign of resignation or defeat and neither are present when the singer speaks about his life or career. Or, for that matter, his latest project.
"I can tell you exactly how it started," McClinton says. "I said to Bob and Mike Joyce, 'Let's get together on a Wednesday and see if we can write something.' We got together and wrote 'Just Keep Doin' What You Do'. We loved it." From there, the Wednesday sessions continued with "Pulling the Strings" and "Like Loving Used to Be" before taking off to the singer's pad in Mexico for a 10-day spell. "It was intense. It was exhilarating and don't much exhilarate me anymore," he says.
Though he and his partners believed that the hard work was over, the battle to get the record released was just beginning. McClinton approached New West about issuing the disc but found that some shifts in both staff and attitudes didn't bode well. "I think it's really good and I want somebody else to think it's really good if they're going to be working on it. New West didn't impress me with what they thought about it", he recalls. He took the music to Thirty Tigers instead and that company embraced the material without reservation.
One might attribute the Texas native's determination for having the record heard to a 2014 bypass surgery. He was at a gig in St. Augustine, Florida in April of that year and feeling unwell. He initially dismissed his discomfort as heartburn but as his pain increased he understood that it was something more severe. "I just felt like every inch of me was wrong," he remembers. He was checked out by EMS staff at the venue and they encouraged him to visit the emergency room to be examined further for signs of a heart attack. Reluctant to take an ambulance there, he hitched a ride with the promoter. Doctors soon discovered that he had 95 percent blockage in his aorta.
"That afternoon" he says, "they took me in, ripped my heart out and put it back together. Two days later they said, 'Get him out of here.'" He had no complications during or after the surgery and his lung capacity remained (perhaps unsurprisingly) strong. "It was all unbelievable", he says. "I think I came back somebody else."
His evident happiness now was slow coming. "The melancholy that comes after something like that is most interesting. For a while there I felt like I'd been kicked out of my life. I wondered if I could sing anymore. The first time I went and tried it with the band was amazing! I had much more vocal strength than I had ever had," he says. Having given up his longtime nicotine gum habit, he adds, helped.
"I'm just bad-assed," he says, a statement that, surely, none can deny.