After 20 Years, Delbert McClinton Still Feels at Home in Nashville

He Releases Acquired Taste, Earns a George Strait Cut

Delbert McClinton has called Nashville home for the last 20 years, but 2009 might be his most memorable one yet. His 16th annual Sandy Beaches Blues Cruise to Mexico sold out in three months. He landed a George Strait cut with “Same Kind of Crazy.” And his newest album, Acquired Taste, captures that live, greasy sound that has given him an enduring career in blues music.

“When I go and record, I don’t like for the band to know the songs real well,” he says. “Maybe they’ve heard them with just a guitar and piano. Then we go in and try to get as much spontaneous creativity in how we want to do it. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you’ve gotta go back and fool with it and say, ‘I want to try this a little bit different. I think we did that a little too slow.’”

The feisty lead track is “Mama’s Little Baby,” about a blossoming young woman who won’t stay home. Asked if he might know anybody like that, McClinton laughs and replies, “I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter, baby. Yeah … there’s no way getting around a 16-year-old girl. They’re going to get your attention one way or another.”

McClinton has long turned heads in country music. In 1993, he landed a Top 5 hit with Tanya Tucker on “Tell Me About It.” Plus, Emmylou Harris took one of his earliest songs, “Two More Bottles of Wine,” to No. 1 on the country charts in 1978. It’s since been certified for more than 1 million plays on the radio.

“I don’t know where she picked it up, but I was surprised to hear that she had done it,” he says of Harris’ recording. “Of course, back then I was surprised about most things that happened. I was so busy trying to do what I was doing that it shocked me that somebody recorded my song. But I was tickled to death, and I still am.”

When the conversation turns to his songwriting routine, McClinton says, “I’ve got a group of guys that I’m close to, that I write with. I guess if you’re going to write songs, you have to expose yourself to it every day. And I do. That’s one of the first things I do in the morning, after a cup of coffee. I get out my notes with bits and pieces, or I go back and work on something I’m working on. You keep it going, and after a while, you’ve got a bag full of songs — if you’re lucky.”

The secret, he says, is to leave well enough alone.

“I don’t like a lot of analyzing, but you get a song to where you like it and turn it over and look at it this way and that way. And when you don’t think you can get any better, then it’s done,” he says, laughing. “You can polish it till it don’t shine. That’s always a trap you can get in.

“But everybody’s head works different. When you’re creating music, you have so many avenues open today that weren’t open before that you can use. But if you get too awful lost in trying to make it into something that you worked too hard over, then you forget what you liked about it in the first place. And then it becomes just a lump of shit laying there.”

Clearly, McClinton doesn’t mince his words. Coming from Texas, himself, he says he understands why some Texas bands are fond of bad-mouthing Nashville.

“You know, Nashville’s a good place with a lot of good people, but I think a whole lot of what goes on in Nashville is bullshit. Just like everybody else does,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want to admit it, but the whole industry is driven by false conceptions, in my opinion. I’m not going to name names or give examples, but it all sounds like it came out of the Mike Curb School of Music.” [In the '90s, McClinton recorded for Curb Records, a label founded by Mike Curb.]

When he talks about owning his publishing and masters in a partnership with New West Records — and says that he’s receiving album royalties for the first time ever — he concludes with this impression: “It’s a beautiful thing. No more talking jive with those stupid f***ing lawyers.”

Since making a permanent move to Nashville in 1989, McClinton has won three Grammys — one in the rock category (for “Good Man, Good Woman” with Bonnie Raitt“) and two in the blues category (for his albums Nothing Personal in 2001 and Cost of Living in 2005). Thus, he speaks from experience when he says Nashville offers more than country music.

“It’s state-of-the-art equipment, very talented people, and they’re a stone’s throw away,” he says. “This is probably the best songwriting community in the world, I think. That’s just my opinion, from what I’ve seen.”

Nothing against his home state, though.

“Texas will always be what Texas is to me — which is where I learned it all and where I’ve got roots,” he says. “But I’m quite comfortable living here, you know. It’s a great town. But the best part about it is that I don’t have to go out and play all the games. … I’m in a position where I can say no to things.”

McClinton made his performing debut at age 17, singing “Crazy Arms.” More than 50 years later, at age 68, he’s relishing this new phase of his career.

“I’ve had a lot of success in the last five years with my records,” he says. “I’m not a kid anymore, and it’s difficult to compete with all that. I never really have competed with that anyway. I’m somewhere else than most people, but it’s worked for me. I’ve carved out a beautiful spot. I’ve got a fan base that I’ve built over the last 40 years, one by one, that would take a bullet for me. So, you know, it’s not a bad place to be.”