Delbert McClinton first heard the voice of God when he was in his teens. But to the budding singer, the celestial audible vibrations he heard back in 1954 apparently had a different sound than most folks associate with the creator. To McClinton, God sounded like Big Joe Turner, belting out "Honey Hush" from a black juke joint in Fort Worth, Texas.
Six years later, McClinton was working with God, backing up Turner with his band the Straightjackets. But God wasn't dispensing any advice from the bandstand. "His singin' is all the advice you need," McClinton says. Howlin' Wolf didn't spread much celestial cheer either when McClinton backed him. "He didn't say, 'Hey, how ya doing,'" McClinton cackles. "He'd just start off singing, and we'd have to find out what key."
But McClinton listened and learned. You can hear the Wolf's growl in McClinton's music today as well as the jumpin' joy of Turner's larger than life vocal style. McClinton's genre-bustin' blend of blues, county, rock and soul is unique. That has been a blessing and curse. Although he's won three Grammys and worked with and written for the best talents in country (Vince Gill, Martina McBride), blues (Bonnie Raitt shared a Grammy with the singer in '91 for their duet on "Good Woman Good Man") and rock (Doug Sahm covered McClinton's "If You Really Want Me To I'll Go"), radio has largely ignored him. "Well hell, radio sucks, let me just say it that way," McClinton offers. But with the growth of Satellite radio, McClinton's music is being heard by a younger audience.
The singer has found another way to get his product across to a captive audience without using the airwaves. Several years ago, McClinton participated in a blues cruise as a guest artist. The second time around, he figured he could do it better. "I love blues music. But mediocre blues music gets real old, real fast. I just thought it could be more diverse."
In 1995, he leased a ship, put together a stellar group of performers (Marcia Ball and Asleep At The Wheel are regular participants), started doing cruises and now has a very successful sideline as a cruise man. "It turned into a wonderful family-like thing," he says. "People have met their best friends, people have gotten divorced and married to people on the boat, it's a good bunch of people." The week-long cruise schedule features fourteen performers and an all-night, every-night jam session. "Ours is the best," he chuckles. "What can I say, man, it is, bar none."
When not cruising or touring with his red hot road band, McClinton goes home to Nashville where he's lived for the better part of the last two decades, courtesy of some Uncle Sam action. "The IRS got me," McClinton says. "A tax shelter got disallowed and they wanted $180,000." At the time, the singer was making about $750 a night, paying for a vehicle and rooms and meals for four other people. "I had to sell my house," McClinton says.
Rootless, McClinton was in a bar when he overheard a conversation that motivated him in the right direction. "One guy said, 'Son, if you want to pick cotton, you gotta go to the cotton patch.' I said, 'Boy, if that ain't the truth.' I had to go somewhere." The singer wanted to get more into his songwriting, and figured he had more friends in Nashville from Texas than he did in Texas. "So it wasn't like I was stepping off in the void," he says. "I came up here and became a part of the community and its really done wonders for my songwriting."
McClinton is between records right now. His last, Cost of Living, came out in '05. But he's in no hurry to do a follow-up. "I'm not working on one right now," McClinton admits. "I'm waiting for the mood to hit me." Although he won't give a specific date, he says he'll soon be headed back into the studio. "I'm just trying to go back in and do exactly the same thing as I did on the last couple of records," he chuckles.
It worked for Cost of Living; he won his third Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album with that record in '06.
"I did," he confirms.
Is it about time they gave McClinton another one?
"Yeah," he says with a raspy chuckle, "It is."
Delbert McClinton plays the Neighborhood Theatre Jan. 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35.