Delbert McClinton’s latest release, Prick of the Litter, reveals the honky-tonking Texan still knows how to rock the joint. That doesn’t mean McClinton plays it fast or loud. In fact, he sets the mood by creating a slow and easy groove before taking the songs into another place. McClinton understands how to lure a listener into an imaginary night club world of sophistication and rural hospitality and provide a soundtrack to the thoughts in your head about that person sitting just a few tables away.
The dozen new tracks here could have been created at any time in McClinton’s 50 years of recording. Sure, there are production and other musical elements (for one thing, this disc is extremely clean with zero bleeding noise; when there is no performance, there is no sound) that show its recent heritage, but the music enjoys a broader time span. There is something distinctly old-fashioned here, especially on such tracks as “Jones for You”, that are sung and played straight from today. Perhaps it’s just that unrequited love is such an ageless heartache.
McClinton has always sounded world-weary. His voice bears the traces of aging, but this fits the material. He’s got the blues because of some woman, some debt that he owes, some good time he shouldn’t be having, etc. He’s bragging more than complaining. There’s a serpentine charm to his persona. He promises more than he delivers, but that is an essential part of the delivery. It takes two to get conned. You know he’s playing the role of a showman, but the entertainment rates attention.
On “Pulling the Strings” you know he’s setting you up while letting himself off the hook. “Life’s a bitch yet so sublime / I’m goin’ nowhere, but I’m making good time,” he croons in a voice borrowed from Tom Waits. You want to pull up at the bar and order a double while hearing the story. On other songs, McClinton expresses a desire for physical love in a low and steamy way. He wants a wild woman who understands the pleasures of fried chicken and taking it slow.
McClinton’s backup band, the Self-Made Men, include Bob Britt on guitar, Michael Joyce on bass, Jack Bruno on drums, and Kevin McKendree on piano. They provide lively accompaniment and are joined by a horn section on many tracks. The music fills the room with a big sound even when there are just a few instruments playing. McClinton, McKendree, and Britt co-produced the album.
The great blues singer Lou Ann Barton joins McClinton on the opening track, “Don’t Do It”, where she declares her independence. McClinton’s old musical partner Glen Clark and NRBQ vet Al Anderson contribute to “Skip Chaser”. But it’s McClinton and the band that offer the bulk of musical pleasures on the disc. Even when McClinton painfully reaches for his falsetto high notes on “Middle of Nowhere”, he keeps the music rooted. In fact, “The Middle of Nowhere” seems to be just another way of saying that everyone everywhere is in this alone together.
The album’s title conceitedly suggests McClinton thinks of himself as a pain. That’s not true. Music like this certainly deserves to be heard.