THE READING ROOM: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Delbert McClinton
Early in April 2014, Delbert McClinton was headed down to play a show in St. Augustine, Florida. He’d just returned from Austin, where his son, Clay, lay in a coma that doctors had induced to heal the brain trauma Clay had suffered in an auto accident. Initially reluctant to leave his son, McClinton followed the advice of his daughter-in-law, Brandy, and left to join the band for the show. On the bus from Jacksonville, Florida, down to the show, though, McClinton wasn’t feeling good and had a little heartburn. He at first chalked it up to the stress of the previous few weeks, but he was soon whisked to the hospital and underwent heart bypass surgery. Two months later, he was back on the stage, tearing it up with his band and delivering propulsive blues and jazz sounds.
Yet, his journey hasn’t always been a smooth one — three marriages, record deals that didn’t quite work out — and, drawing on in-depth interviews with McClinton, his family, and his music colleagues, music journalist Diana Finlay Hendricks delivers a first-rate biography of the ups and downs of McClinton’s life in Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few (Texas A&M).
Hendricks meticulously chronicles McClinton’s life and work chronologically, from his birth in Lubbock and his family’s move to Forth Worth through his marriages and children to his early bands, such as the Straitjackets, and his relentless drive to make music, working with musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Lee Roy Parnell, B.B. King, and Kevin McKendree, among many others. In his own words, McClinton tells his story, with Hendricks filling in the narrative, setting his words in their historical context. McClinton never goes easy on himself, pointing out his faults along the way, but the beauty of Hendricks’ biography is that McClinton’s music and his passion for it are at the center of the book.
Early on, following a night of camping, he and some friends hear some music floating through the Fort Worth air. “I felt something that started in my ears and ran through me like an electrical shock. … I heard ‘Honey Hush,’ by Big Joe Turner for the first time. … I just stopped in my tracks and stood there soaking it all in. That day, that moment, that song, that voice, that music. It touched my soul. Until that day, I didn’t know music could do that to you.” It’s not long before McClinton picks up a guitar in pursuit of remaking this sound in his own image. Eventually, of course, he’s selected a harmonica as his main instrument — other than his voice — and he’s off to making a place for himself in the musical universe of blues, rhythm and blues, country, and jazz.
Hendricks traces the marks that McClinton makes on several music scenes from Fort Worth to Los Angeles — the experience he immortalized in “Two More Bottles of Wine” — to Nashville to Austin and back to Nashville. He absorbs every music style, putting his own stamp on it. McClinton is so focused on making and performing music that he often never realizes how deeply he has touched his fans or the reputation he has established for himself. As radio personality Bill Mack says, “Delbert has never been about the money. As long as I have known him, he’s wanted to get out and play and be heard. He wanted to share his music. And if it cost as much getting there as he made that night on the stage, he was breaking even and that was good enough. Delbert set an example, sincere and dedicated to his music and his art at whatever the cost. …Delbert is the kind of musician that other musicians aspire to be. He does it all, no matter the pay. And you can tell he truly loves what he is doing. I hope he realizes how good he is.”
In the early ’80s, at a low period in McClinton’s life, he meets Wendy Goldstein, a news producer for NBC radio and television, who turns his life around. “She just picked me up and dusted me off. She helped me when I wasn’t doing so good, told me I could get my act together and do better. She gave me a confidence that had lain dormant my whole life. She took a look at everything I had done, and what I should have done, and what I wanted to do. Then she raked it all up into a pile and turned it into something.” According to Hendricks, Goldstein’s and McClinton’s “personal and professional partnership” — the couple has been married since 1997, McClinton’s third marriage — “is based on a combination of passion, talent, astute business skills, a strong work ethic, and a deep love for each other. The music that has been central to their lives for more than three decades is second to their mutual respect for one another.”
As McClinton says of his music: “Call it blues or country rock or American roots or whatever, but one of the most important things about my songs continues to be that there is always a way out. Nothing I write spirals into the abyss. It’s all ‘I’ll be all right. The music is mostly so positive, in that I’ll be okay. … I always want to have an uplifting draft in the breeze of the song.”
Five years after Clay’s accident — from which he’s fully recovered — and McClinton’s own health scare and return to the stage, and with the release July 26 of his new album Tall, Dark & Handsome, McClinton has never been better. Every song reveals his mastery of another facet of blues and jazz and illustrates the ways that his nonstop energy carries these songs into the stratosphere. Hendricks’ biography illustrates why Delbert McClinton thinks of himself as one of the fortunate few and why he continues to play at the top of his game.