Music legend Delbert McClinton reflects on ‘Outdated Emotion’

They call Delbert McClinton the Godfather of Americana for a reason.

Across the span of a 60-year career, he’s played with everyone. Little Richard and Jimmy Reed. Muddy Waters. Willy Nelson. Tom Petty. Mavis Staples. BB King. He’s written songs performed by Emmylou Harris, Etta James, Vince Gill, George Strait, Martina McBride. He even taught a young John Lennon the finer points of the harmonica.

McClinton’s blend of country, soul and blues is a sound that has endured for 60 years. He’s somehow found himself at the center of the Texas music scene, the California music scene, the Nashville music scene, even the Muscle Shoals music scene. He’s a musician’s musician, releasing more than 30 albums and winning four Grammys and the Americana Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. He’s witnessed entire genres of music come and go and he’s seen America change in the process.

He’s a legend. And now he’s released his latest album, Outdated Emotion, which is a tribute to the artists that first inspired him. Across 16 tracks, he’s recorded songs by Hank Williams, Jimmy Reed, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Lloyd Price and others. These are some of the songs and artists from which all of modern American music sprang. They’re songs that endure and ones that McClinton still loves.

This week on the Reckon Interview, Delbert McClinton joins us to discuss what these songs meant to him, stories from six decades on the road, how the music industry has changed and more.

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

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Reckon: You’ve released at least 30 albums over the years, but this latest one “Outdated Emotion” feels like returning to your roots. You’ve got 16 songs on here, most of which were originally recorded by people like Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams, Ray Charles. Tell me how you decided on these songs?

Delbert McClinton: Well, they’re some of the songs from my past that I love. That’s where I came from. It’s music that still moves me to this day. I wanted to do this partially for me. And also the fact that there’s at least two generations of people who are not familiar with this music. I think it’s great music.

Reckon: And so much of the music that we listened to today still has roots in those songs and that era.

McClinton: Of course they do. How could they not? You know, it was just a few songs that are part of me. I learned a lot of things from these artists.

Reckon: Do you remember the first time that you heard Hank Williams?

McClinton: Oh man. I was a kid, you know. I have always wanted to record some Hank songs because I’m the world’s biggest Hank Williams fan. Always have been. I was a kid when Hank Williams was doing Hank Williams. But the Hank stuff was all when I was an underage guy. Hank Williams, he did it to everybody. You know, Hank Williams was Hank Williams. Nobody topped him yet. When he died, I was 12 or 13 years old.

Reckon: And you started playing shortly after that and got to play with people like Jimmy Reed.

McClinton: Right. He’s an all-time favorite of mine, just, I don’t get enough of him. I’ve listened to Jimmy Reed, it’s the heartbeat of my life.

Reckon: Well and his name is one that people don’t know as readily as Hank Williams or Ray Charles. You know, I noticed a lot of the artists that you recorded for this new album were Black artists and you were playing with some of them like Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed at a time when segregation was still the law of the land in places like Texas. And they were getting played on the radio, but you don’t see biopics of Jimmy Reed, like you are of Elvis this summer. So do you think they got the credit that they, you know, clearly mean to you?

McClinton: Jimmy Reed? No. I don’t think he did. But in a way he did because Jerry Reed affected every. Because for one good reason [hums guitar solo]. Anybody can do it. Jimmy Reed did it a special way.

Reckon: What was it like playing with them at that time? Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf and so many others?

McClinton: It was great. I learned a lot of hard tricks from those guys. And they were very eager to give me information. To show me stuff. And I knew I was in the right place at the right time. And I absorbed as much of it as I could.

Reckon: I know throughout your career, you’ve been part of the Texas scene. You were in the California scene. You played in Nashville, New York, Muscle Shoals. You’ve been called the Forrest Gump of American music. When you think about, you know, you toured for 60 years, what’s the first memory that comes to mind for you in that whole process?

McClinton: Of touring for that long? Before I got my first bus, which was a 19 49 bus. The bus I bought was one of those art deco things with a rounded back with a scoop and every one of them you’d find to buy, they would say, yeah, this belonged to Bob Wills’ band. You know, every one of them I ever looked at, “oh yeah, this was one of Bob Wills’ buses.” I spent a lot of time traveling in a ‘69 pickup truck with a camper on the back with the mattress I was born on shoved up in the bed and a five-piece band. This was an upgrade from a station wagon because two or three guys could lay down on the mattress and sleep and two in the cab. So, you know. It’s all so romantic.

Reckon: There’s a legend. And I know you’ve talked about this plenty of times before, but there’s a legend that you showed John Lennon, at least, the finer points of harmonica playing when you were touring in London. How did that go about?

McClinton: You got to keep in mind. They hadn’t changed the world yet. And we were all going to change the world. We were all on common ground. When I got to go to England with Bruce [Channel] for the “Hey Baby” thing, the first couple of weeks were package shows where all the artists traveled on the same bus. The shows would start in the afternoon and go way into the night. But 15 or 16 different acts, culminating in Bruce Channel. I got to go out and do a couple of songs with the band, and then I would bring Bruce out. Nearly every night, somebody in one of the bands would come to the dressing room, say, “Hey, show me how you do that.” It’s kind of hard to show anybody how you do anything on a harmonica. But this night that we played with the Beatles, Beatles were the opening act, and John came to the dressing room and says, you know, show me how you do that? Uh, I don’t know, other than they came and wanted to know something about what I was doing. We hit it off and they came back out. Or at least John came out to see two or three other shows that we did and we hung out for off and on for a couple of weeks. And then it was all over.

And then a couple of years later, somewhere, somebody wrote down that John was influenced by the harmonica on Hey baby and yada, yada yada. And that got romanticized into, we were best buds and all of that. Well, we were... We hit it off really well, but there was not time to become best buds. But it’s written, as they say.

Reckon: Obviously music has changed a lot in the 60, 70 years you’ve been playing. You’ve seen rock and roll from the beginning and it reached its kind of rise. And now it’s not quite as popular as it was a couple of decades ago. What’s been the most lasting and best change that you’ve seen in music over the years?

McClinton: What Willie [Nelson] did in the seventies. He introduced the songwriter. And the songwriters, the artists with their own band, not an artist playing with the house band, so to speak. You could get to it easier through what Willie started. He made everything available to the songwriter. All those shows I did with him in the seventies, most of the people backstage were songwriters or people in bands. It kind of gave the songwriter an avenue. Willy did. And so many great songwriters surfaced during the seventies because of what Willie brought and what Willie offered to others who were wanting to do the same thing he did. Play their own music.

Reckon: You obviously witnessed music change, but you also witnessed America change in the last seventy years. We talked about you’ve been called the Forrest Gump of music, but I believe you also saw President Kennedy in Fort Worth about an hour before he was killed. Tell us about that.

McClinton: The day that happened, I had this friend that used to come out to the club all the time, where we played. And he ran a little place called The Stag Shop, a men’s clothing store. We were good friends and so it got to be where if I’d come out there and spend the day with him and maybe sell something or just keep him company, I called it “my job,” but the best I could get was a couple of shirts here and there. Anyway, we were out at The Stag Shop. RadioShack had this ad for the Big Ear. We got to laughing about that. They said you can put it up to the wall and hear people in the other room. And so Stuart, that’s the guy’s name at The Stag Shop, he says, “man, why don’t you go over there and get us one?” He gave me some money to go, so I drove over to RadioShack.

Well, on the way there was police coming down on motorcycles and putting everybody to the side of the road. I didn’t know what was going on for a minute, but found out that the president was on his way out to Carswell Air Force Base to fly to Dallas. So he came by and they were just creeping along, and I was less than a car length away from him. They came by and we locked eyes and he nodded and waved at me. And I went on after they went by, went on over and got this Big Ear. When I got back over there, I was, Hey man, I just saw the president. He said, president, just got shot. So it was a wacky day.

Reckon: And you had been the house band before, and then obviously you started putting together your own band and toured with your own band for most of your career.

McClinton: Yeah. I’ve been the band leader in every band I’ve ever been in, just trying to make it work.

Reckon: Is there anything you would do differently?

McClinton: Oh, man. Uh, I don’t know about differently, you know, the music that I make, it just comes out. It’s seldom ever anything planned. But if you got a good line, got a good hook line, it begs for more. And if you want to be a songwriter or a poet, well, then you chase it.

Reckon: Are there any artists today that you’re excited about that you, that you like listening to, that make you feel the way that maybe you felt when you were listening to Hank or Jimmy Reed as a kid?

McClinton: I can’t listen to radio these days. I think since MTV came into the scene, it’s all been dumbed down and dumbed down. The thrill is gone, except for those coming up who want to be... if I never hear another guitar thrasher, it’ll be too soon.

Reckon: Well, what kept you going? What kept you touring for as long as you did and what was it like for the last couple of years not touring after 60 years of touring?

McClinton: Well, all the touring and stuff that I’ve done has been the most wonderful thing in life. Even today, the passion is still so incredibly strong, but COVID changed a whole lot. And it came at a time when I was already slowing down. When COVID came along, I was only playing four nights a month. I was doing two weekends a month, Friday and Saturday. Forty years on a bus and hotels is enough. And COVID just pushed it over the top. All of those things that was, are not there anymore.

I don’t want to go into a room full of 800 people in the middle of this unknown disease that’s taken hold of everybody. And I’m compromised. I’ve had heart surgery. And I don’t need anything like a bad case of COVID. Two guys in my band got COVID real, real, bad, really bad. They survived it, but I’m not sure what surviving COVID means because they’re talking about the COVID brain fog and all of these lasting problems some people are having with COVID.

Anyway, it turned it all around. You know, the thrill was gone as far as getting out there and doing that. It was only gone because of the threat of it. I was sitting at a kitchen table one day and Molly, a woman that works with me, she came in, she says, “what are you going to do with this bus?” I’m not on the road. I don’t need a bus. So I said, well, sell it. She said, I think we’ve got it sold. And we did. And so with the bus gone that put the final nail in the travel coffin. And that’s okay. I’ve traveled. I’ve done that. It’s not to say that I won’t do a show here and there from time to time, but I’m not gonna do any more 15 hour bus rides or red carpet hotel rooms.

Reckon: As you’ve traveled across Texas and Tennessee and the country. What are the changes that have stood out to you throughout your career?

McClinton: There’s too many people. Too many people, man. It’s just too many people. There didn’t use to be this many people and life was a lot easier. But there’s just too many people. Too many ways to jump and not enough ways to win. Just too many opportunities and they can’t all be good.

Reckon: I know on this record, you got to play with your daughter for some of the songs. What was that like?

McClinton: Well, it’s great. I introduced her to Hank Williams before she could walk. And she knows the lyrics to every Hank Williams song. She can hum the solos, the fiddle solos, the guitar solos. Everything to every Hank. So when we’re in the car together, we put Hank Williams on and just sing at the top of our lungs, all these Hank Williams songs. So when I came to do this, I wanted to include her in it.

Reckon: If you had advice, you know, you talked about how MTV changed everything. But if you had advice for people coming up right now that wanted to play music the way that you did, how would you tell people to start?

McClinton: Only advice I got to anybody’s don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room while you’re on stage. Or your leather jacket.

Reckon: What’s next for you?

McClinton: Oh, well, I got a record coming out day after tomorrow. I’m excited about that. I hope people receive it well.

I’ve already got songs lined up for another record. And I’ve got so many songs that I’ve done on other people’s records, that I would like to put on an album and put out that are great. They’re good songs. And they’re in the bag. They’re already done. Hell, I’m still writing songs. I only retired from the road. I didn’t retire from making music.

Reckon: You think you’ll ever retire from making music?

McClinton: I don’t know. I’m sure that at some point something’s going to prevent me from doing it most likely. But right now, I think I’m doing really well.

Reckon: The name of the album is “Outdated Emotion.” Where did you come up with that title?

McClinton: Well, the songs are from another time. The emotion I feel from listening to this music is thrilling and these artists are not on the radio. Most of them aren’t even alive. Hell maybe all of them? None of them are alive? I don’t know, but it’s just some of the music that really moved me that I would like to share the excitement I had with other people through this music. And the only way for me to do that is to make these songs mine and present it.

Reckon: Tell me about the first day you realized you could make a career out of this.

McClinton: I think the first day was when I was about 12 years old. My favorite cousin lived in Sweetwater, Texas. We had just moved to Fort Worth and, every summer, me and that cousin had spent a lot of time together. I went to spend some time with them at Sweetwater, Texas. And they had a old bed set up out in the backyard with a mattress on it. Me and Walter, that’s my cousin, we’d sleep out there every night.

We were out in that backyard and his daddy, Uncle Earl was the meanest old son of a bitch there was. Never had anything good to say. He treated kids like he hated them. And he was drunk a lot. Well, I was out there in the backyard and I was singing, “Hey, Joe, where did you get that pretty girly?” And he came running out, slammed the screen door open. “Who’s that doing that singing?” And we just froze. And I said, that’s me. He said, “boy, that’s really good.” And Uncle Earl became my biggest fan. He he drove a Vandervoort’s milk delivery truck, and he’d pay me and Walter 50 cents a day to go with him on his route and run up to the door and collect the bottles and put full of bottles of milk.

Well, we’d get up at four in the morning and go to the Vandervoort place, help load the truck and we’d go stop at this coffee shop, where all the Vandervoort drivers went to get a cup of coffee and a doughnut before they’d start their route. Uncle Earl got me up on the bar there, the counter of the donut shop, singing to all these milk truck drivers.

And they all, it was just a very susceptive. And I thought, “man, maybe I’m onto something.”

The other thing that really got me going, I was 17. I went to Florida, my mother’s youngest sister, my aunt. They had been in Lubbock visiting family. They lived in Cocoa Beach, Florida. They came through Fort Worth to visit with us for a couple of days and my aunt invited me to come to Florida with them for a couple of weeks. So I jumped at it and we got down there and my aunt was the other biggest fan I ever had. And she went down and rented me a guitar and entered me in, uh... the Starlight Motel, which is where all the astronauts hung out. And they had a bar in there, you know. And every Wednesday they had a talent contest. And at the end of the month, the last Wednesday, all of the previous winners would perform, and that night’s performer, which was me. I won. Won a hundred dollars.

And when I got back to Fort Worth, I went over to T H Khan music company and bought a little mahogany Martin guitar, used guitar. I’d give anything if I still had it, but I don’t.

When I won that, this woman from Atlantic Records came up to me in that motel bar. Gave me her card and said, send me some demos. Said, “I really think you got something.” You know, I thought, man, I got it made, I got it made. So when I got back to Fort Worth, I went in and recorded a couple of songs and sent them to her. And I hadn’t heard from her yet. It set my world ablaze. That’s when I put the first band together.

Reckon: Was that the band that you were backing all these artists in Fort Worth with?

McClinton: No, no, no, no, no. This was years later. This was 17 years old and I had only put one band together. And the only reason this band got put together, Jerry Lee Lewis was coming to town and he was the hottest thing going. He was going to play the Sportatorium in Dallas, which is this huge thing they use mainly for wrestling matches. But when they’d have concerts, they’d just take the post down on the four corners and make it a stage. We went over to the audition for opening act on that. Us and two other bands, nobody could play. But we were so willing.

We had me, a sax player, a lousy tenor sax player. And the drummer had a snare drum and a ride cymbal. There were four guitar players. Me, my brother, and my brother’s friend. Anyway, we got up there and opened a show for Jerry Lee. When he came up, I was standing right this side of the stage. Cause you know, it was kind of a backstage area. And I was standing and looking at him from the back. And he was about six, seven feet away. And I’m standing there watching, in a minute he stands up and kicks that piano stool and it went right by my face, man. It didn’t miss me by five inches. And that was a thrill. That was a big thrill. That’s my Jerry Lee Lewis story.

Reckon: The sound that you’ve carved out for yourself, Americana, the mix of country and soul and blues and R&B. That sounds seems to have endured where a lot of others haven’t. You know, the thrasher guitar that you were talking about not liking. What is it that you think makes that sound last?

McClinton: I think it lasts because it’s good. You know, the secret of music is there’s no answer to it. It either moves you or it doesn’t. And if it does it’s everything, and if it doesn’t, it’s nothing.

Music has always given me exhilaration. Always. I grew up listening to all the music of the forties and I still listen to Forties Junction on Sirius Radio everyday. I can’t recall a day that I don’t listen to forties music because it still stimulates me so much. And that was a time of great bands, great musical artists, the war. The war was the biggest horror ever known. The music was the most wonderful thing. Forties music is so incredibly uplifting. The artists of the time, Lester Young and Teddy Wilson. Good God, man. They’re phenomenal. They do it with no tricks, no gimmicks. MTV brought all the gimmicks on and lyrics fell by the wayside.

I don’t know, man, I don’t know. And these are all just things I feel. Doesn’t mean they’re real to anybody else.

Reckon: I think the fact that you feel it so deeply is why your music has been so embraced by so many people.

McClinton: Absolutely. Without a doubt, it has been the driving force in my entire being, my whole life.

Reckon: What’s your favorite story from the road?

McClinton: The road is the story. Every outing, there’s something that stands out. Whether it has to do with the music or something that happened. An awful lot of fun goes on when you’re in a bus with people you admire, and you make music with. And you spend all your life on a bus with them, the ones that come and go, it’s a fellowship that lasts.

John Hammontree

John Hammontree | jhammontree@reckonmedia.com

John Hammontree is a co-founder of Reckon. He currently serves as Executive Producer of Reckon Radio, host of the Reckon Interview podcast, and author of The Conversation, a weekly newsletter that digs into ideas, perspectives and people that you're not likely to find in other media.

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