Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Good Life

Veteran singer finds happiness at home

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Delbert McClinton named his new album One of the Fortunate Few for a reason. Sitting in the window of a 21st Avenue coffeehouse, the 57-year-old veteran looks out into the late-morning sun and says, "I got the world by the tail, man. My career's better than it's ever been. I've got a pretty good grip on what's important to me, and it's a lot less than I ever used to think it was. Life is good." He holds up his hand. "Look, I don't shake," he says, letting out a table-rattling laugh.

McClinton has reason to feel good. His new album is as substantial as anything he has recorded since "Givin' It Up for Your Love" provided him with his one and only pop hit 17 years ago. The new collection amply displays the talent and the savage vitality that has earned this singer high esteem since the early '60s, when he taught a baby-faced John Lennon how to play harmonica. The timing is fortuitous, for McClinton's career has been on the upswing in the last few years, thanks to such mainstream adult-radio hits as "Everytime I Roll the Dice" and two well-known duets, "Never Been Rocked Enough," with Melissa Etheridge, and "Good Man Good Woman," with Bonnie Raitt.

For McClinton's fans, many of whom consider him one of the most gifted vocalists in popular music, the success has been a long time coming. Delbert's raspy, ferocious voice carries in it the history of American popular music: There's the down-home rhythm and testifying punch of gospel-based R&B, the aggressive snarl of the blues, the mournful rumination of honky-tonk, the jaunty spirit of swing, and the up-front sexuality of early rock 'n' roll. Few male vocalists cut through blustery horn sections or burning electric guitar leads with as much force and swagger, and even fewer do so with such unaffected naturalness.

Not too long ago, though, McClinton didn't feel so fortunate. In the late '80s, after having lived nearly 40 years in Fort Worth, and after having spent more than 30 years as a musician, all McClinton had was a good reputation and a bad life. "I'd just gone through my second divorce, my career was in the toilet, and I lost my house to the IRS," he says. "I was trying to figure out which way to jump."

Despite some reservations, McClinton took a leap of faith and moved to Music City. "The reason I chose Nashville is a funny thing," he muses. "Right before I came here, I was sitting in a bar when I overheard two guys talking. The only thing I heard of their conversation was, `If you're gonna pick cotton, you got to go to the cotton patch.' Boy, that hit me like a ton of bricks. So I came here."

McClinton's move proved to be life-changing: A new record deal and, more importantly, a new relationship soon found him standing in high cotton. His marriage to veteran music business executive Wendy Goldstein "got it all back on track," the singer says. "She picked me and my career up and straightened it all out. She's the smartest person I've ever known, and some of that's rubbed off on me. I'm a smarter person and a better person than I was before. I'm not chasing rainbows anymore."

With the move and the marriage also came a drastic change in lifestyle. A veteran roadhouse performer, McClinton belonged to the night--for more than three decades, his life had largely been a nonstop nightclub tour. It used to be that an evening off would find him back in the same barroom environs. But not anymore. "I've never found anyplace I felt like being for more than a few days," he says, spooning out a bite of lowfat yogurt. "But I like Nashville. I've got a family here, a 4-year-old daughter; it's home. Texas will always be home, because that's where I'm from. But now Nashville is home too. And when I get off the road, home is the only place I want to be."

Delbert McClinton, happy just to get a paycheck.
Photo by Matthew Barnes.

Much like fellow music veteran John Prine, McClinton has found unexpected bliss as a fiftysomething father. He is as surprised as anyone at his newfound happiness; domesticity was the last place he expected to find such contentment. "I found out my needs are small," he says with a beatific smile. "I don't get out in the nightlife much anymore. Been there, done that, you know? I don't know much about [Nashville], to be honest. Across the river from here might as well be the moon to me. When I'm off the road, I know how to get from the airport to my house. I can get around Green Hills, that's about it. And that's all I need."

The former rainbow-chaser used to look for deliverance in a neon glow. Now he gets all he needs from the light in his loved ones' eyes. This kind of positive spirit pulses throughout One of the Fortunate Few while the music props up all of McClinton's strengths: The album offers chunky, Stones-style riff rock, raucous rhythm 'n' blues, and soul-stirring balladry, all delivered with consummate confidence and with swinging, swaggering musical backing. Coproducers Emory Gordy Jr. and Gary Nicholson have packed the supporting players with big-name guests, including B.B. King, Vince Gill, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, and Mavis Staples. But the flow of the record doesn't become disjointed to accommodate the stars; for the most part, the guests blend into the churning, soul-powered arrangements, which emphasize emotion as much as precision. The one exception is the hilarious romp "Too Much Stuff," a high-speed swing tune in which McClinton swaps vocal lines with Prine and Lovett.

The message at the center of "Too Much Stuff"--finding transcendence in primary pleasures--runs throughout One of the Fortunate Few. The album sports an abundance of autobiographical themes, especially in the choruses, where McClinton testifies that "sometimes all it takes is a leap of faith," and "you have to find somebody who loves you." He balances all this upbeat, positive energy with more typical McClinton fare, mixing in frisky roadhouse fun and a couple of stunning blues tunes, including "You Were Never Mine," one of the most moving ballads of his career.

If much of the music sounds particularly joyful for R&B, that's because it reflects the current state of McClinton's life. "I'm probably the most fortunate guy I know," he says forthrightly. "Hell, I've been around a while, and if you're around long enough, you either get famous or infamous. Neither one of them means as much as a paycheck. Right now, man, I feel like I got it all in balance. I'm just happy. Life is good."

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