Delbert McClinton has always been one of my favorite musical artists. And not just because he once gave me a great, almost hour-long phone interview, talking about the music he loves. I’ve enjoyed his concerts, his albums, his style, and most of all, his almost indescribably eclectic music.
For example, he’s won four Grammy awards: One for a 1992 rock performance with Bonnie Raitt for “Good Man, Good Woman”; a 2002 Contemporary Blues Album for “Nothing Personal, a 2006 Best Contemporary Blues Album for “Cost of Living, and a 2020 Best Traditional Blues Album for “Tall Dark and Handsome.”
He’s recorded and performed those blues, all right, but he adds country, rock, soul, and rootsy roadhouse sounds from every musical corner, in a style that is uniquely smart enough to just be called “Delbert.”
Now he’s 81, has retired from the roadhouses and the road, and is content to deliver his music long-distance. And for his 27th studio album, “Outdated Emotion,” due May 13, he’s decided to pay tribute to the very roots of his rootsy music.
“I’ve wanted to do this album for a long time,” he writes in the album notes. “I wanted to sing all these songs. I wanted to honor these people who did these songs who made such a great impression on my life and my music.”
And then I ran across this quote from an informative interview that Delbert gave to Steven Ovadia in Blues Blast Magazine. It speaks to the idea that good songwriting requires good listeners:
“And in the world I came from, you’re gonna have songs that aren’t trash, that aren’t silly, that aren’t stupid, that actually say something, and go from one point to another with a legitimacy that’s obvious. But you’ve got to be able to know how to receive that music, and I don’t think a lot of people have been exposed enough to that kind of music. I think it’s going to be real interesting to see what younger people today think of our interpretation of this music. I’m excited about it. I think they’re gonna like it.”
Well, I like it. A lot. It’s extremely listenable, enjoyable music. It’s a great collection of his influences, plus five original creations. There’s pure country, unadulterated rock and roll, and some straight, no-chaser blues. Everyone from Hank Williams to Jimmy Reed to Little Richard. In other words, pure Delbert.
But mostly, it’s just damn fine music.
And now for something completely different.
I’m going to turn the rest of this post over to Delbert, and the excellent descriptions that he wrote for each of the 16 songs in an album booklet. It’s a shameless example of copy and paste, I know, but who better to describe what he felt about each song. And I also have to give a lot of respect to someone who can work in an admiring reference to that great old R&B group, a long-time personal favorite — Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.
Here’s Delbert on Delbert:
I’ve wanted to do this album for a long time. I wanted to sing all these songs. I wanted to honor these people who did these songs who made such a great impression on my life and my music. I never in my life ever thought about having a job for any other reason than a means to an end, which means I wasn’t educated enough to do much more than pour piss out of boots.
But I’d get these jobs where I was a hotshot driver for a brake and clutch warehouse, delivering stuff out to garages and spend my days driving around, listening to the radio, and making up songs. I just always knew that this was going to be what I would do, and I was going to do it well. Music has been there since day one, and it pulled me out of the fire, and saved me a million times.
There’s never been a doubt in my mind that I was going to play music. When I started doing it, I realized that nobody else was doing it the way I was doing it. I was influenced by Hank Williams, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, those World War II songs. You can see their influence in the songs I’ve written and the music I play. I want to give credit, where credit’s due.
1. “Stagger Lee”: Lloyd Price and Harold Logan
Every song on this album reminds me of everything good in life. In 1958, I was 18, and rock and roll was still brand new. It was magic. Stagger Lee was a major hit for Lloyd Price, and it was a major hit for me.
Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” hit me like a ton of bricks. It takes me back to a time when the hits came one right after another. And it honestly felt like it was never going to stop. The music was heartfelt and energetic. The future was endless.
2. “Setting the Woods on Fire”: Fred Rose and Ed Nelson (Hank Williams)
“Setting the Woods on Fire” just lifts me up. It’s a celebration of life, plain and simple. All that music was so much fun All of these songs made my career what it is. I was 12 years old when “Setting the Woods on Fire” was a hit in 1952. I had so much fun making this record because I’ve wanted to do a Hank Williams record my whole life.
I grew up with this music. Hank Williams was one of the songwriters who transformed me into who I am today. Hank Williams was The Guy. Everybody can find their story in a Hank Williams song. And those songs are as good today as they were when he recorded them. And, then rock and roll came along. I have lived through the best music in the world.
The guys who played on these Hank songs were so great. When I was talking about recording some Hank Williams songs, everybody in town said you’ve got to get Chris Scruggs and his guys. I didn’t know who they were, but I said okay. I’ll get them. So, we had Chris on steel guitar and guitar, Mark Winchester on upright bass, Jimmy Stewart on flat top acoustic guitar, Wes Langlois on arch top acoustic guitar, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Chris asked, “What do you want to do first?” I said, “Setting the Woods on Fire,” and let’s try to do it just the way Hank did it. Bam 1-2-3-4. We had all of those songs down. We did all those Hank Williams songs in less than three hours. And I felt like I’d known those guys forever. I walked out of the studio that day thinking, “What the hell just happened?” And I still feel that way every time I listen to these songs. Because they did it exactly like Hank did. And I did my best to do Hank. I think we did a pretty good job. I love that music so much, I couldn’t lose.
3. “The Sun Is Shining”: Jimmy Reed, Calvin Carter, Abner Ewalt
“The Sun is Shining” is a typical Jimmy Reed song. And typical for Jimmy Reed is the pocket that most people are looking for, his style of singing. And on those records, even if he’s not drinking, he slurs, but he slurs it’s all just right. Even when he comes in at the wrong place, it doesn’t matter. Because when they all finally get to the same spot, you can’t crack it. You just can’t crack it.
I remember where I was the first time I heard “Honest, I Do” by Jimmie Reed. I was at a stoplight on
the south side of Fort Worth on the way to rehearsal, and it blew me away. And that big cymbal just
knocked me back in my shoes. That’s the day I quit playing “Dixie” on the harmonica and started learning to play blues harp.
There was a big old club in Fort Worth called the Skyliner. It was built in the 20s or 30s as a big
ballroom, and the roof rolled back, so it was like dancing under the stars. Me and my band were the only white band that got to play there. This was still during segregation, so Monday nights belonged to the Blacks. The first time I got to hear Jimmy Reed live was at one of those Monday night shows at the Skyliner. I was already a Jimmy Reed fan. There were several artists on the stage – Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, and some others. I heard that harmonica, and I knew he was there. I’m looking everywhere. Where is he? And he came out from behind the sheer curtain, His delivery of the music was genius.
If you sit and listen to Jimmy Reed, if you can really understand his lyrics, they are brilliant. Sometimes it’s hard to understand, but I dug in because I wanted to know what he was saying. There was no shucking and jiving. It was no bullshit. Every line of every one of his songs tells the truth.
Beginning in about 1952, the music was so phenomenal – and it has stood the test of time. The
Midnighters, the Lamplighters, all those Black vocal groups were just outrageous. I can’t say enough
about them to make you understand how important all of that was to me. Yesterday, I told my daughter to go listen to “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton. And to listen to how raw the whole thing is. The guitar player never plays a chord in the song. He’s playing riffs all the time – and it works. It’s so basic and you can’t help but get it. That music changed everything.
Sometimes it’s so wrong, it’s perfect. Well, not perfect, because anything that’s perfect is not good.
Jimmy Reed is the best there ever will be. Nobody was doing what he was doing the way he was doing it.
4. “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer”: Rudy Toombs
One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer is one of my favorite songs of my whole life. Amos Milburn had the first hit in 1953. Then John Lee Hooker brought it back in ’66. But the Milburn version – that is the one that has remained a mainstay in what I do. It has been a go-to song my whole life. I can hear that song and just skate my way through life. The whole song. And Kevin McKendree, who plays with me on the record, takes the song to a whole new place. When we went in to record it, and he started playing, I thought, “My God. That’s it.” Not the way Amos did it, or Hooker, but it’s just what I wanted.
Kevin is phenomenal, anyway. And so is his son. Yates. We recorded a lot of the songs on this record, just the three of us. Bass, piano and vocal. And that’s all you need. Bass, vocal and piano. We had so much fun making that discovery. I’ve had total access to Kevin and Yates and Kevin’s studio all through COVID, and one day I said, “Let’s record some stuff.” That’s where it all started.
5. “Long Tall Sally”: Robert Blackwell, Enotris Johnson, Richard Penniman
I was about 16 the year this song came out. It changed the course of music. Little Richard was crazy. He could do anything. We opened for him at a New Year’s Eve show in Fort Worth a few years later, and he was on fire. It’s fun to sing. Makes you feel like you’re 16 again.
We were at a point in recording, and Kevin says, “What will we do next?” I said, “Let’s do ‘Long Tall
Sally.’” Of course, I cannot come close to sounding like Little Richard, but I knew the song and I loved
the song, and it’s been a part of my life ever since Little Richard came along. We were just laughing and having a good time. But when he and Yates started to play, it’s so real. You can’t get lost when they’re playing because they’re in the deepest old pocket of anybody I’ve ever worked with. You just can’t not be good when they’re playing behind you.
6. “Two Step Too”: Delbert McClinton
I wrote this song at least twenty years ago. It’s about a guy trying to meet a woman, just trying to get in the door. I like blues and rock ‘n’ roll, but I like to “Two-Step Too.” I recorded it again for this record because I had all those great Hank Williams players in for the session, and they fit that song perfectly. I like this version a lot better than the original version I recorded (Cost of Living, 2005) It’s a clever song.
“A glove box full of coupons good for a drink and a Krystal Cheese….” You have to know that Krystals are these little White Castle-like cheeseburgers. They have stores all over the South. Krystal’s drive-thru is open all night and a box full of Krystals is a good way to end the night after a gig. I’ve done it a million times.
7. “I Want a Little Girl”: Billy Moll, Murray Mencher
This is another one of my favorite songs on this record. It’s almost an exact copy of Ray Charles’ version. When I brought that up, Kevin said, “Man, we’re never going to beat that. It’s Ray Charles.” And I said, ‘We won’t beat it, but we won’t embarrass it.” It’s just Kevin and me, and Yates playing bass. And we did a pretty good job of it.
8. “Ain’t That Loving You” – Jimmy Reed
Once again, Jimmy Reed set my world on fire. He’s a hero of mine. And “Ain’t That Loving You” is one of my favorite songs. It’s got these cool dead stops in it, which we did on this record. And Yates played drums on it. That song is pumping full-time from the get-go.
In the early 50s, you could hear Ernest Tubb and Muddy Waters in the same hour on the radio. It’s not that way anymore. Everything is formatted. Jimmy Reed and all those guys used to be Top 40 artists, Hit Parade people. Music has evolved, and it is more segregated now than it was back then. Sometimes I just need to go back and listen to good music in that mixed up order: Hank Williams, Jimmy Reed, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Berry.
9. “Jambalaya” – Hank Williams
I played this song the way I learned it. And I did the verse that he left out on the record. I don’t even
know where the hell I learned it. It’s a fun song. It’s a story about a big family party, a community feeling the same emotions, and everyone’s connected by a common thread. Anybody who was around when Jambalaya came out is still singing it today. It’s infectious. It’s relevant 79 years after it came out, and it’s just hard to beat. Hank’s voice was not loud or boisterous, but he had a way of connecting to people. It’s a big sing-along song. Anytime that song comes on anywhere, everybody sings along on the chorus. It’s all about community.
Hank had a band that was incomparable. We did the Hank songs just like he did them. No drums. Just live people sitting there playing. These Hank Williams songs have lived with me since he recorded them. And they are as strong now as they were then. A lot of people say “Hank Williams, yeah, he was that guy…” But they are not familiar with his songs. A lot of people just know that he was a big deal in country music a long time ago.
I wanted to play his songs for him again, and to let people hear them for the first time or listen to their old favorites. I just wanted to be a part of it. He had such a big effect on my life. I sang a Hank Williams song for my daughter when she was 30 minutes old. She took to Hank like a duck to water. She is as big a fan as I am now, and that’s a big deal for a young woman her age. We drive around in the car and sing at the top of our voices and have so much fun. When I get in the car, she has it set up and ready to go. Hank Williams’ music has been one of the brightest spots in my life since I can remember.
10. “Connecticut Blues”: Delbert McClinton, Kevin McKendree, Yates McKendree
“Connecticut Blues” was just a fun song. The lyrics are so trippy. I was sitting at the piano one day and this line ran through my head. “I put some potatoes in and picked up a couple of real nice steaks, chilling her favorite Chilean wine, everything’s right on time… but she won’t be coming home tonight. They cancelled the flight…”
That’s what happens when I get out at Kevin’s cabin. Just being in the room with those guys inspires me to write. We fooled around with what I had, and the last verse just came out: “I’ve got tears running down my face, I got blues all over the place. A good time just won’t let me in. I’ll try over and over again… I’ve got the low-down, snowbound Connecticut Blues,” and it was done.
11. “I Ain’t Got You”: Calvin Carter
I did “I Ain’t Got You,” a song written by Calvin Carter and released in the summer of 1960 by Jimmy Reed. As you know I love everything by Jimmy Reed. The simplicity of this song–the whole primitive sound. It starts out and sounds like it’s going to be a train wreck, it starts on the wrong side of the time, and then Jimmy comes in on the vocals at sometimes the wrong place, and then it all jumps together, and it works. I’m going to tell you a story about Jimmy Reed but it’s not for printing. Just put down that I still have a microphone that he sang into when we backed him up at Jack’s Place (Fort Worth).
12. “Move It On Over”: Hank Williams
“Move It On Over” was Hank Williams’ first big hit in 1947. I was seven years old when it came out. Every song he recorded is still a big hit with me. He was so good. “Move It On Over” is a rocker. It shows off the musicians well. Hank’s calling himself out on being in deep shit, and not taking anyone’s advice. I snuck a word in the song that’s not in his version. I put “Scooch” in there. “Move it on over, Scooch it on over. “The die-hard Hank fans will know that I added that. It’s just a little fun thing. There is a story that when Hank went to Acuff-Rose to try to get a job as a songwriter, it was lunchtime. Roy Acuff said, “Well, we’re going to lunch. You sit here in the office and write us a new s ong.”And when they got back, Hank had written “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You. ”He got the job, and it’s still a great song.
13. “Hard Hearted Hannah”: Jack Yellen, Bob Bigelow, Charles Bates, Milton Age
I leaned into the Ray Charles version of “Hard Hearted Hannah.” It’s always been one of my favorite Ray Charles songs, although just about anything he does is my favorite. It’s the bomb as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t get any better than Ray Charles. It’s a playful song and I got to sing, “Brother, She’s the Polar Bear’s Pajamas,” and that was fun. There’s nothing rude about it. Nobody’s losing. It’s just about this devil woman that everybody loves.
14. “Sweet Talkin’ Man”: Delbert McClinton, Sharon Vaughn.
Sharon Vaughn and I wrote this one day. She is so special, such a talented singer, writer, and person. Anyway, we wrote this about my best friend, Billy Sanders. He’s been gone for years, but we played together for a long time, and he was one of those guys that when he walked into a room, within five minutes, everybody else is around him listening to his bullshit. The best bullshitter of anybody I’ve ever known in my life. He could wrap a woman around his finger just like that. He played the shit out of a red 335 Gibson. We wrote this song about him and it’s mostly true. “Every time you see him, he’s got a longneck in his hand…wearing two-toned handmade boots, got a big tattoo that says, ‘I never lose,’ (which he didn’t have but it goes good in the song). He’s the number one, top of the line, sweet talking man. Every Daddy’s nightmare and every daughter’s dream…” It’s so easy to write with Sharon. I fell in love with the song – and with her. She sings so well, and so effortlessly. That kind of pisses me off. So effortlessly. And she’s won every kind of award anybody can win just for being so damned good. And she is so easy to write with. You know, they say the mind is a wonderful thing. It starts working before you’re born. It works constantly in your life until you sit down to write a song. She made it easy to write that song that day.
15. “Money Honey”: Delbert McClinton and Gary Nicholson
Gary Nicholson is another of my good friends. “Money Honey” came right out of midair. It started out as a rock and roll song. I was going to put some originals on the album while I had those great guys in the studio for the Hank Williams songs. I said, “I think this will work in that Hank style, too.” So, Hank’s inspiration showed up again when we went to record it. That and “Two Step Too.
16. “Call Me A Cab”: Delbert McClinton, Kevin McKendree, Yates McKendree
“Call Me A Cab.” A few years ago, we were down in Mexico writing songs, Bob Britt and Kevin McKendree and me. We’d been drinking whiskey and it was getting late at night. I had the whiskey voice going, and I was kind of testifying a little bit. And there was a quiet moment when I said. “Call me a cab, I got to go. I can’t sit and listen to this shit anymore. Call me a cab, hey girl, bring me a check – please.” It felt like a song. We were getting up to go, and while we were waiting on the curb, we recorded it on Kevin’s iPhone. Some years later, we took it into the studio and Yates added some magic to it. The way Yates ends it with that note after “please,” it’s almost like that beatnik thing from late ‘40s, early ‘50s. We didn’t re-record it – just added Yates on bass to the iPhone recording, and a little magic thing happened.
Delbert talks about Yates McKendree:
Yates McKendree is a freak of nature. So is his daddy. Kevin. They are two of the most talented,
innovative artists I’ve ever had the good fortune to make music with.
I’ve got a picture of Yates when he was about three years old. We were all at a Christmas party at Gary Nicholson’s house. In the living room, Gary has an old upright piano. I looked over and saw Yates in there standing at that piano and he had one finger up. He was so short. The keyboard was at eye level. He was studying it. And then he started playing with one finger. Bin, bin, bin. Bom, bom, bom. Bin. Bom.
I took a picture of him. And from the day of that picture, he just started learning everything so fast. He is talented beyond anything I will ever be able to fully comprehend. They’ve got it all in their heads, he, and his daddy both.
Yates is somebody people are going to hear a lot more of. He’s 20, and right now and he can smoke
anybody on the guitar, just blow them away. Bam. One thing that was so notable about Yates was that
when he was still learning to play guitar, his hands weren’t big enough, so he was playing all this
complicated stuff with his thumb. Just his thumb. Playing Freddie King instrumentals with just his thumb. Finally, he started using his whole hand. I have a video of him playing “Hideaway,” Freddie King’s big hit instrumental. Yates and Kevin are two of the most important people I’ve ever gotten to work with. They are both phenomenal. And they bring out the best in me just by being in the room. It’s some kind of magic.
Yates was born in Nashville and raised in a recording studio. By age 8, he was sitting in with the Mike Henderson Band at the Bluebird Café on Monday nights. He played the International Blues Competition at age 11, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest at age 13, and as a supporting act at the Ryman auditorium at age 16. While in high school he played on and engineered many recording projects, most notably for Delbert McClinton and John Hiatt, who told Rolling Stone Magazine “Yates was our secret ingredient.” 2020 started with Yates winning a Grammy for engineering and playing on Delbert’s Tall, Dark & Handsome. He is currently finishing his first solo album.
Here’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” from the album:
Here’s the Jimmy Reed version: