NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Delbert McClinton, Rodney Crowell Still Musical Leaders

Two Texans Keep On Rocking Nashville

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Two Texas kids I first saw perform decades ago continue to create new music and are still churning Nashville music circles. They both have illumined and traced country music’s circles and influences over the past decades.

These two old road warriors have long since, of course, become mature men doing some mature music. Their new CDs reflect a lifetime of touring, recording, writing and performing before audiences both large and small.

I first experienced Delbert McClinton onstage in about 1961 at a blues juke joint named Jack’s Place on the infamous gangster strip known as Jacksboro Highway in Fort Worth, Texas. I was in high school, in possession of a lovely fake ID, and Delbert was a scant few years older than me. He was opening for the great bluesman Jimmy Reed and more than holding his own with that tough roadhouse audience. He was fearless onstage. I have seen him countless more times in Texas joints over the years and at the Lone Star CafĂ© in New York City, where his roadhouse-honed music won over new big-city audiences nightly.

His raucous but gorgeous mix of country blues, R&B and rock has gotten lovelier over the years, as displayed in his new CD, Cost of Living. Nothing beats the voice of experience, and that’s what you hear. And you can see a little bit of it, too, in his different driver’s license pictures from over the years, which are included in the CD.

He wrote or co-wrote every song but one of the 13 here, and it’s a strong bunch. Songs about love and something other than love between men and women, and honky-tonks — the eternal verities of the country blues. And he name-checks the old Fort Worth joint Jack’s Place in the song “Two Step Too.” I’m especially glad to hear “The Part I Like Best,” his writing collaboration with his old duo partner Glen Clark. Their two albums as Delbert & Glen in 1972 and 1973 remained for years two of the great lost works of American popular music. Fortunately, Koch Records Nashville reissued them earlier this year.

Rodney Crowell represents another side of Texas music: the introspective singer-songwriter closer to the folk side of country. I first saw Crowell in about 1964 in such Houston clubs as the Jester and Sand Mountain and later in the Old Quarter. Along with such fellow Texas folkies as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark in those small Houston coffee houses and bars, they were our Bob Dylans for us Texans who couldn’t head for Greenwich Village. And, as I now and then re-listen to primitive recordings from those clubs, they were really good.

Crowell was writing and singing the same kind of frank, at-times autobiographical, sometimes quirky, at-once questioning songs that have filled a long series of solid albums ever since. His newest, The Outsider, also touches heavily on social commentary, as he has done over the years.

More than any single album, the body of work these two men have built over the years is impressive and inspiring. They’ve had hits along the way, but I think those were accidental. Crowell had five straight No. 1 country singles in 1988-1989 off his album Diamonds and Dirt, and I think it amazed him. Neither man considers himself as belonging to any one genre of music. They’re unclassifiable. Neither Crowell nor McClinton sets out to create music that is overtly commercial. If it sells — terrific. If not, it’s there, to be savored and enjoyed.

Crowell and McClinton between them encompass and express the great appeal of Texas music over the years: its fiery spirit of independence. They’re ornery mavericks who just want to be left alone to create. Good for them.