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Delbert McClinton examines the cost of living

By Rick Bell, September 2005

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Though McClinton says he loves to perform, he's still a songwriter at heart.

"When your business is playing with words, you've got to love what you're doing," he says. "One phrase or word will lead to a whole new song."

McClinton brought together an A-list of Nashville tunesmiths for many of the songs on "Cost of Living," out in late August. McClinton wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 13 songs with the likes of Al Anderson, Jim Weatherly, Bob DiPiero and John Barlow Jarvis.

Longtime collaborator and co-producer Gary Nicholson pitched in on several of the cuts as well.

"Gary is a great guitar player and singer, along with being a great writer and producer," McClinton says. "We come from about the same musical background - he's from Dallas, and I'm from Fort Worth. We've known each other since 1976."

The longtime friendship has also extended to their work. Nicholson has produced several of McClinton's albums, including what arguably is his best album to date - 2001's Grammy-winning "Nothing Personal."

"Gary brings the technology," says McClinton of Nicholson's wizardry in the studio. "I'm more the songwriter and the arranger, although we do a lot of the arranging together."

McClinton also believes in a less-is-more technique in the studio. With an assembly of horns and backing vocals, it isn't always easy, he admits.

"I don't play the song for the band before we record," he says. ""Usually, it's not that hard to play. If we rehearse it, we do away with the opportunity to do something special - the off-note that someone else might play."

"I like to get everyone in the studio at the same time. We try to get the vocal live every time. If you've got a really good track, maybe we'll go back and punch it, but a good track is a good track. The magic of the studio is amazing, but you can over-fix it. Just because the technology is there doesn't mean you have to use it."

The new songs have translated well from the studio to the stage, he says. Given the fact there's already a live vibe running through the disc, the next step is relatively simple, he added.

"I've always had a full band when I play live," he says. "It's a six-piece band; they've all been with me a while. My newest guy's been with me a year. The next have been with me five or six years. My sax player (Don Wise) has been with me 21 years."

McClinton laughed when asked about touring solo.

"What would I do without a band? My whole thing is based around a band," he says. "It can be difficult keeping a band together, but playing solo is not what I want to do. I'm not playing any lead instrument, so I've got to have at least a couple guys with me."

So far, he's playing several songs live off "Cost of Living."

"We're playing four or five right now - 'One of the Fortunate Few,' 'Right to Be Wrong,' 'Midnight Communion' and 'Hammerhead Stew.' When you've got new ones, you have to showcase them in the best spot of the show," he says. "So far, the reaction has been really positive."

The country-drenched "Midnight Communion" came during a session with Nicholson and Russ Smith, he says.

"Gary and me and Russ were writing together and 'midnight communion' started sparking ideas," he says. "What about a bunch of winos downtown late at night? It wrote itself after that."

Like most writers, McClinton draws inspiration from just about everywhere. Friends, strangers, even his kids, he says.

"On 'Dead Wrong,' I was sitting at my desk at home when my daughter, who's 12, came in," he says. "She came in wearing her mom's high heel shoes. She'd hurt herself, and she was crying, and the line came to me - 'she's wearin' her mama's shoes and cryin' like a baby.' I thought, 'This is a dysfunctional family that needs help.' She calls her daddy, and he's a prick. Writing puts a lot of things in perspective."

Perspective is something McClinton certainly has gained over the years, particularly when it comes to the business end of music. Never one to be concerned with making a fortune, McClinton ultimately realized no one could produce and sell his records better than he could.

"The main reason I started doing it was the record companies kept going belly-up. I had an album with Rising Tide, which was an offshoot of Universal," he says of the short-lived, but highly respected company started by former Atlantic Records head Doug Morris in 1995 that was shut down during the consolidations of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Rising Tide had all the makings of a great label, featuring McClinton, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jack Ingram and songwriter Matraca Berg.

"It was a fun place to be," McClinton recalls. "But then one phone call, and it was no more Rising Tide."

"I decided I'll write, record and produce myself. I asked Gary, and he says, 'Sure.' He's like my brother."

There was no fear of leaving the safety net of a major label, McClinton said. After all, he was then in his late 50's.

"It was kind of my last option," he says. "I figured 'to hell with these guys. I can do it better; we can do it ourselves'."

McClinton now leases his records to New West, which means he deals with all the costs and risks.

"They belong to me; it's a trend that's starting to happen more," he says. "It's more with artists who have a fan base, but aren't in the mainstream. If you don't sell millions of records, you're disposable. If you're in the position I'm in, this is a great opportunity. I'm not a young guy. Music belongs to young kids, so we have to find another way in."

Leave it to the kids; let them deal with the unscrupulous industry people. "I'd get 2 cents a record, and the record company people would charge everything to you," McClinton recalled. "They'd all fly in - first class - get suites, order champagne, and charge it all to me. They'd say they were doing it on your behalf. It's theft."

Of course, McClinton now is in a better place - musically and personally.

He's selling out halls that hold 1,500 people, he makes between $2 and $3 off each record and controls his own destiny.

Simply, he says, "I have no complaints now."

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