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Nothing personal, but Delbert McClinton finds room to breathe

By Brian Baker, October 2002

You can tell in the easy manner of his conversation that Delbert McClinton is in no hurry to get anywhere fast. He speaks with a cadence that suggests a man ambling along a country road on a sunny day, soaking up the scenery and enjoying all that he sees along the way.

And while McClinton does not feel particularly rushed to accomplish the few things that he might perceive to be undone in his long and illustrious career, one is struck by the fact that his new album, "Room to Breathe," is on the verge of reaching store shelves before his last album, the much lauded "Nothing Personal," still lingers on the blues charts well over a year after its release.

A more aggressive artist might proudly point up that fact and use it as proof of his drive and ambition. McClinton shrugs off any attempt at praise for his prolific studio activities with a simple explanation.

"I guess it's mainly that I've been writing a lot, and I was ready to do it, and I couldn't think of any reason not to," says McClinton from his Nashville office. "I thought, ‘Well, hell, we're ready, let's just do it again.' And we had a ball."

A ball is most certainly what Delbert McClinton is having himself these days. His four-decade music career is the stuff of legend: he gave John Lennon harmonica lessons while touring England with Bruce Chanel in 1962. He recorded seminal country rock with his duo Delbert and Glen in the early ‘70s. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd championed his songwriting by including "B Movie Boxcar Blues" on their Blues Brothers album in the late ‘70s, and Emmylou Harris did the same with her take on "Two More Bottles of Wine."

His biggest country success was "Tell Me About It," a 1993 duet with Tanya Tucker recorded.

McClinton, 62 in November, has survived the demons of his chemical excesses with the same tenacity that has seen him through the demise of nearly every label that has signed him (ABC, Rising Tide, Decca, Capricorn), and he's outlasted the corporate hellhounds who kept him in a legal limbo that prevented him from recording for half a decade.

Now he finds himself aligned with New West Records and in control of his creative output to an extent unparalleled in his long and often frustrating career.

In a situation where most labels would discourage an artist from releasing a new album while the previous album is still selling significant numbers, New West is encouraging McClinton to work at his own comfortable pace.

"I don't believe that," says McClinton of the idea of waiting until "Nothing Personal" drops off radar to release "Room to Breathe." "If the other one was still in the Top 10, maybe. I don't have records in the Top 10, and my audience is not near as big as some other artists. I can see where they might want to hold it back, but in my case, hell, I ain't gettin' any younger, either. I'm having more fun now than ever, and that thought never entered my mind. We were ready with the songs, and we made another record. It felt right."

Perhaps the greatest chore that has been eliminated from McClinton's routine with his newfound position of control is the drudgery of going through a morass of demos looking for a handful of songwriting gems to record. It is not a process that he misses.

"I've been on a roll with my songwriting for the last five years," he says. "If you don't write your songs and you've got a record deal, the record company says ‘We want you do it with this producer.' The producer puts out the word here in town to all the writers - there's a sheet that goes around here - that so-and-so's looking for songs. I had three Kroger sacks full of tapes and nine-and-a-half out of 10 of them were hideous. It got to the point where I would think about it all the time. I'd get up in the morning and go, ‘Oh, God, I gotta listen to some of those.' And you try to listen to them, and it's just awful. I got up one morning, and I picked up all three of sacks, and I dropped them in the garbage, and I said, ‘To hell with it, I'm gonna write ‘em myself. By taking that step, I think it enabled me to write ‘em myself."

McClinton is receiving unprecedented support from his label to do anything he wants, and what he wants to do right now is follow up the best album of his career with another one that might well be its equal.

After years of having his judgment swayed by ham-fisted major label savants, McClinton is having the last easy laugh. 2001's "Nothing Personal," a title that drips with irony, was the first album in his 35-plus year career that didn't bear the scars of outside interference from label spin doctors.

It's no small coincidence that McClinton's first album completely under his own control became one of the most successful and recognized works in his entire catalog.

Consider these facts: "Nothing Personal" spent 12 weeks at number 1 on the Album Network's Americana Roots chart and was AN's Americana Album of the Year; it was named Album of the Week by the New York Times upon release; it appeared in five Billboard charts simultaneously in the weeks after its release and remains near the top of the magazine's blues chart after a year and a half; and it garnered McClinton a 2002 Grammy Award for Contemporary Blues Album.

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