The Cost of Living

Delbert McClinton's new lease on life

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Susan Antone stands on the sidewalk amid the overflow of construction sprawling from the new Home of the Blues on Fifth Street.

"Hi y'all!" she greets with arms spread wide as Delbert McClinton and his wife, Wendy Goldstein, make their way through the mid-December drizzle.

The new Antone's is still two weeks from its planned New Year's Eve opening, and as Susan leads the couple through the maze of materials and loose cables inside, McClinton expresses his doubts about the deadline. Co-owner Will Bridges assures him they'll make the date.

McClinton carefully surveying Antone's as the club nears its resurrection makes for a fitting moment. Two years ago, the future of both Texas blues icons seemed in doubt.

In April 2014, McClinton had emergency heart surgery, a triple bypass. It came only two weeks after his son, San Marcos songwriter Clay McClinton, had been hospitalized with a severe head injury following a car accident.

"It changed my life completely," McClinton acknowledges of those harrowing few months. "The fact that I'm still alive, and was just a heartbeat away from being dead, that scared me. I was just short of a heart attack."

The multiple Grammy-winner turned 75 last November, and now follows it with a yearlong "Diamond Jubilee" tour to mark it. He has a new band, and new album due in the spring. His son made a full recovery and plays across Texas in preparing his fifth LP.

Back in the warmth of his 10th-floor condo beside the Hilton Garden Inn, Delbert looks out the window over Downtown Austin, a view cutting straight down Fifth Street toward the new Antone's. Though long based in Nashville, the couple still makes it to Austin at a rate of once a month.

"I'm so much healthier now," McClinton acknowledges. "My voice is a hundred times better, and that in itself leads to so many more ideas. I'm at a point in my life where I'm not trying to have a career. I got a career where I can do anything that I want to do.

"I feel like I'm 50 again," he says and lets out a deep, rounding laugh.

Victim of Life's Circumstances

The opening to Bruce Channel's 1961 hit, "Hey Baby," remains one of the most distinct signatures in rock & roll. McClinton's harmonica ignites the song with a wild abandon against the chugging rhythm, ushering in Channel's vocals trembling with a youthful want and energy. That ringing harp line launched countless stampedes to the dance floor.

The hit also sent the 21-year-old Lubbock native to England with Channel for a tour featuring an opening act called the Beatles. Backstage, McClinton showed John Lennon a few tricks on the harmonica. Later, the Fab bandleader famously credited the Texan's blues harp as an influence.

"It gets romanticized, and I don't know what to say about it, because it just happened," laughs McClinton. "You've gotta put it into perspective. When we did all that stuff, it was still just the infancy of rock & roll. Everything was just made up on the spot, and there was very little precedent of any kind to go by.

"It was just a matter of how big of balls you got."

Rock & roll may not have had a precedent for McClinton's harp, but he learned to blow behind the blues gods. In Ft. Worth, where his family moved when he was a teenager, McClinton formed the Straitjackets in 1958, which became the house band backing Jimmy Reed, Bobby Bland, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, and every other blues legend that passed through town.

"There were two main clubs back then, and they were already relics of another time," he remembers. "They were old, massive dance halls. The Skyliner Club had gone to seed a long time ago, but Blue Monday there was the night black people had it. We were the only white band that ever got to play there. I had the band that knew all the artists' songs, and we were doing them good."

Ft. Worth had little more to offer the aspiring musician though. His marriage was falling apart by the end of the Sixties, and his career hadn't reached much beyond Texas.

"I was going nowhere quick," he says. "I was working at a car parts supply and playing in bar bands. One night, I was playing this beer joint, and I was high on acid, and this woman came through the door. I'd known her forever, but she was brand new that night, you know? We locked on each other, and that began this mad, crazy affair. She'd just gotten divorced and had some mad money – and a '66 Chrysler Imperial.

"I said, 'Hey, wanna go to California?'"

In Los Angeles, McClinton hooked up with fellow Ft. Worth songwriter Glen Clark, and the duo released two albums for Atlantic in the early Seventies as Delbert & Glen. He returned to Texas in 1974 just as progressive country began taking hold in Austin, but his eclectic, R&B-based style on 1975 solo debut Victim of Life's Circumstances never fit. He moved to Nashville a year later.

There, McClinton slowly began garnering attention. Emmylou Harris hit No. 1 in 1978 with his song "Two More Bottles of Wine," and McClinton scored his own Top 10 behind "Givin' It Up for Your Love" off 1980 LP The Jealous Kind. Behind the music, however, things were falling apart. Bad business partners and a hard lifestyle were quickly catching up to him.

"I had to turn my life around," he says. "I was going the wrong way like so many others. I can think of three or four guys I knew in the Seventies that drowned in their own vomit snorting junk. I've seen the lowest, dirtiest side of all that drug stuff, and for whatever reason, I didn't die from it, because, Jesus, I loved speed.

"The backside of that can make you feel like the lowest piece of shit that ever drew breath. But I always I had the music. And that's always made me able to do it, because I know if I were to fuck around, I would lose that."

Live From Austin

Austin, 1989: The horns come on like a shotgun blast as the applause drops to a simmer. A sharp burst of percussion and surge of guitars, and McClinton burns into "Maybe Someday Baby" like a man possessed.

The singer's Austin City Limits taping that year preserves one of the show's monumental performances. Although it marked his fourth appearance on the PBS concert series, this time he stacked the stage with a band that included two keyboards, a horn section featuring locals Jon Blondell and Kaz Kazanoff, and late South Austinite Stephen Bruton on guitar. Through "Lipstick Traces," "Thank You Baby," and "B Movie Boxcar Blues," McClinton unloads a set as R&B shouter, soul growler, and blues howler. Turning over Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember," McClinton wails tender and broken. Encore "Givin' It Up for Your Love" brings the house down as a full party erupts to close.

Alligator Records insisted on putting out an LP of the recording, and Live From Austin earned McClinton his first Grammy nomination. Although only 40 minutes long, the album captures the full fire of McClinton live. It also marked his comeback after a decade spent getting sober and subsequent hounding from the IRS for back taxes.

"I was working eight days a week to try to pay the IRS and just live," he remembers. "There were assholes that would come to gigs I was at and try to get money for the government. And every record company that I recorded for went out of business except one. You live and learn, if you're lucky."

Live From Austin signaled a turning point. In 1990, he signed with Curb Records and released I'm With You, his first studio effort since 1981. The next year he won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo with Bonnie Raitt for "Good Man, Good Woman," and hit the country charts with Tanya Tucker duet "Tell Me About It" in 1993. Whereas his eclectic style had previously confounded labels and/or left him pigeonholed within the blues, by the Nineties it allowed him access across a full spectrum of roots music, epitomized by 1992's Never Been Rocked Enough that featured support from Raitt, Tom Petty, and Melissa Etheridge.

"Wendy came along, that was the big change," says McClinton about his partner of nearly 30 years. "She raked it all in a pile and made it work. The most wonderful part of life was getting together with her. She's got the brains. You can do a lot, but you can't do it by yourself. Here I am at my age and I have more success than I ever had."

2001's Nothing Personal and 2005's Cost of Living both captured Grammys for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 2013, he re-teamed with his old songwriting partner Glen Clark to release Blind, Crippled, and Crazy. The album brings McClinton full circle in more ways than one as the duo lays down gritty, honky-tonk blues on "Oughta Know," a song co-written by his son Clay and Bruce Channel.

Driftin' Away With You

Since moving back to Central Texas nine years ago, Clay McClinton has become a favorite at the annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar in the Palmer Events Center. In December, he earned opening honors to the 10-day music lineup after missing the previous year's event while still recovering from his auto accident.

At 41, he looks at least a decade younger, and even more so when he flashes his broad smile behind the microphone. On this quiet Tuesday morning – 11am – a half-dozen Austinites have the seated area to themselves, while others gather from around surrounding booths. Delbert sits a few rows back from the stage, his feet tapping to the blues and country tunes his son delivers. He beams a big proud smile and bobs his head along to "Oughta Know."

"Before he was even born, he was in the beer joints with me," McClinton says later of his son. "He can't get enough of it, and I know the feeling. I can't get enough of it. The one thing that he got from me, and I'm not sure how healthy it is, is that he is so incredibly determined to do this."

McClinton the elder has likewise found renewed inspiration alongside his new band and co-writers. New songs play more in the vein of songbook standards, ballads that unravel smoothly under his low croon in a voice grown rich and evocative with age.

"It's a brand new start in a way, and it's just inspirational to sit with new people and come up with ideas and write," he attests. "It's overwhelming sometimes in that it's such a rich thing to be a part of. Even if this record doesn't sell anything, it's still wonderful and I love it, and that's all I care about."

As Clay begins to strum the fluid sway of "Driftin' Away With You," Delbert can't contain himself anymore and rises out of his seat as if physically reeled in by the music. Onstage, he joins his son in harmony as the chorus swells, and the two songwriters smile at each other, lost together in the moment.

"Life is good," says Delbert. "Knowing that Clay's doing so well, and he's so positive, there just aren't words to describe something like that. We both could have just have easily been dead, and we both know that, and that's a reason to rejoice. It really is."

Delbert McClinton plays the Paramount Theatre Friday, Feb. 12.

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