Don't mistake this observation for bitterness. Rising Tide, the company that issued One of the Fortunate Few, McClinton's latest disc, has indeed closed its doors, but he's not losing sleep over its demise. After all, his winning road record provides him with quite a safety net. "I've got a fan base that is just the best bunch of people in the world," he notes. "I keep coming to their town and they keep coming out. It's a great big love affair between me and several thousand people. It's just a good thing, you know?" He adds, "To tell you the truth, I don't want to sign with another major label, because for somebody like me, I wouldn't be in the active pecking order. I don't fit in, and that's OK. I don't want to be a part of what's going on there anyway."
At times during his decades in the public eye, McClinton has been smack in the middle of the music-biz action, but he's just as often been on the periphery -- admired by fellow musicians as a consistent purveyor of roadhouse redemption, but not always remembered by the masses. He cut his first single, "Wake Up Baby," in 1960 for the Le Cam label, and played on "Hey Baby," a major hit for Bruce Channel, in 1962. The latter tune took him all the way to England, and when a fledgling combo called the Beatles signed on as Channel's opening act, McClinton made his first mark in rock history by teaching John Lennon some tricks on the harmonica. He subsequently co-headlined a pair of discs with Texan Glen Clark before emerging as a solo artist. He released a number of well-received platters on the ABC and Capricorn imprints during the '70s, and struck a royalties gusher when the Blues Brothers covered one of his compositions, "B Movie Boxcar Blues," on their huge-selling 1979 debut platter. With the release of The Jealous Kind, a 1980 full-length, McClinton scored a hit of his own when "Giving It Up for Your Love" reached the pop Top 10. The smash brings together two of his biggest virtues: a unique, Deep South sound and a gritty, bourbon-blessed voice.
Paradoxically, "Giving It Up" didn't change McClinton's life for the better. Plain From the Heart, which arrived a year later, didn't come close to matching the popularity of its predecessor, and led to a stretch that was marked by substance abuse, divorce, and troubles with the Internal Revenue Service. McClinton's fortunes didn't improve until 1985, when he met his current wife, Wendy Goldstein. He credits her with saving both his career and his life: "She picked me up and dusted me off, and life's been going great ever since."
In 1989, McClinton returned to record stores with Live From Austin, a disc issued by Alligator Records that was nominated for a Grammy as best contemporary blues album. He won the prize two years later for "Good Man, Good Woman," a duet with Bonnie Raitt that led to a slew of songs teaming McClinton with big-name talent. Long-players such as 1992's Never Been Rocked Enough, 1993's Delbert McClinton, and 1994's Honky Tonk'n Blues have featured such high-profile guests as Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, John Prine, and Lyle Lovett, and the 1993 single "Tell Me About It," which paired McClinton with Tanya Tucker, received a Grammy nomination of its own.
One of the Fortunate Few is another star-studded affair: Country heavyweights Vince Gill, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, and Lee Roy Parnell all make contributions, as do Mavis Staples and B.B. King. (McClinton calls King "the most wonderful person I've ever met, I think -- gracious, immensely talented, and humble to a fault. I think he's the closest thing to royalty that we have in this country.) The result is a solid collection of the blues-based music he's perfected over the years. From the Stonesy raunch 'n' roll of the disc's opener, "Old Weakness," to the honky-tonk closer, "Best of Me," McClinton howls with satisfying abandon.
The new album doesn't pander to the mainstream largely because McClinton, who had a hand in penning most of the material on Fortunate, has no interest in doing so. "One thing I've never done is try to write for radio," he says. "I wouldn't know how to do that. I just write and play what I feel and try to get it where I like it. And if I really like it, that's all that really matters." He prefers this approach because of what he sees as the low quality of most '90s songwriting. In his opinion, "It's insulting. A lot of times, I hear this stuff on the radio and think, 'How stupid do you think I am?' So I don't really look for other people's songs much anymore. There are a few writers that I seek songs from, but I gave up on bringing home three and four grocery sacks full of demo tapes to listen to, because that drives you crazy. I decided I'd rather dig in and write them myself than to go through it, because it's insane."
Many of McClinton's peers have blamed the musical assembly line in Nashville, his adopted hometown, for contributing to the decline in the art of tunesmithing, but he'll have none of that. "It's not just Nashville," he insists. "Don't say that, you hear? It's everywhere. The problem is, everybody in the world is a songwriter, and how many of those are going to be good? But the music business is big business, and people are packaging things just like they sell toys to kids for Christmas. They don't expect these to endure: There will be billboards all over the country for a month, a year, or two years, and after that, you end up saying, 'Who was that? I kind of remember that song. Whatever happened to them?' But after it's all said and done, the cream still comes to the top."
Despite his belief in this maxim, McClinton's had plenty of downs to go along with his ups -- so he's come up with a way to smooth out the ride. He and his wife run an operation called Sandy Beaches Cruises, which allows lovers of hot heartland music to take to the ocean alongside him and pals such as Steve Earle, Marcia Ball, and the members of Asleep at the Wheel. "Everybody on the cruise is a good friend of mine," he says. "It's really an opportunity for me and my friends to spend a week together and play music, which is something that we don't get to do all year long. It's a big jam session with 16 different bands and music going constantly. It just doesn't get any better than this."
He says the same about his career as a whole. He may not have a recording contract right now, but he has everything else he needs. "I love doing this. I'm not a superstar but I'm doing OK, and I've really got no complaints. I'm a guy who's been around a long time who people respect, and I'm very comfortable with that. Jeez, all I can do is think, 'My God, things are wonderful,' because things could be a hell of a lot worse. I really am one of the fortunate few.