Recording of December 1997: One of the Fortunate Few

DELBERT McCLINTON: One of the Fortunate Few
Rising Tide RTD-53042 (CD). 1997. Gary Nicholson, Emory Gordy, Jr., Delbert McClinton, prods.; Russ Martin, Marc Frigo, engs. AAD? TT: 38:12
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

The titles of Delbert McClinton's records are usually an accurate gauge of his mood, or at least how his career is going. Back in 1973 he was Subject to Change. Two years later he was a Victim of Life's Circumstances, in 1978 he got his Second Wind, and in 1979 he was a Keeper of the Flame. By 1992, ol' Delbert had Never Been Rocked Enough. And now, after a four-year drought of new recordings (there have been a number of reissues), Delbert's back with a new album and a new attitude, feeling at this point that he's One of the Fortunate Few.

That he feels that way at this point in his long and tortuous career is astonishing. For one thing, Delbert's never really had a hit. "Givin' It Up for Your Love" is as close as he ever got. Too white for black radio and too black for white rock radio—and, underneath it all, a blues singer—he's struggled for airplay since the mid-'60s, when his group The Ron Dels briefly hit the charts with "If You Really Want Me To, I'll Go."

Then there's his troubles with record companies. No less than three different labels have gone out of business either just before or just after Delbert released a record with them. And for most of the '90s he's been in a tangle with his last label, Curb Records.

Given short shrift by both radio and record labels, Delbert's solace all these years has been the road, where, if you've ever seen him, you've known he's one of a kind. A blues belter, a Texas soul singer, an inimitable presence—Delbert is routinely wonderful onstage. The only problem with being a killer live act is the miles. Being on the road at age 57 can't be a whole lot of fun.

All of which makes his latest album's title and pervasive attitude that much more amazing. Yet, as Emmylou Harris once remarked about his song "Two More Bottles of Wine," "No one but Delbert McClinton could have seen things this way."

Now on Ken Levitan's Rising Tide label, one of a handful of small but exciting indies based in Nashville, Delbert (who also lives in Music City) has, with One of the Fortunate Few, equaled his previous studio bests, Victim of Life's Circumstances and Never Been Rocked Enough. The guest list here is impressive: Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Mavis Staples, Vince Gill, Lee Roy Parnell, and B.B. King. For instrumental muscle, these sessions also feature all-world-guitarist Steuart Smith and the great Jim Keltner on drums. This mix of human and instrumental voices gives the album its passion and charm. On the humorous "Too Much Stuff," for example, the instantly recognizable voices of McClinton, Lovett, and Prine trade verses—each a list of "stuff"—and sing together on the choruses with the kind of easy camaraderie that just naturally makes you smile.

On "Monkey Around," which is Delbert at his songwriting best and whose chorus pretty much sums up the sentiments contained therein—"You made a man into a monkey / Now the monkey's gonna monkey around"—the additions of Pam Tillis and Patty Loveless on background vocals is the perfect piquant addition to a song about a whipped man suddenly loosed on womankind. Throughout Fortunate Few (on HDCD), the producing trio of McClinton, Nicholson, and Gordy have retained the crisp, immediate edge of this very live-in-the-studio (no overdubs) recording.

But while the guest list may catch your eye (and eventually your ears), it's the songwriting and the continued strength of Delbert's voice that are at this album's steadily beating heart. Ably assisted on most tunes by his songwriting partner and guitarist Gary Nicholson, Delbert can still write and belt out horn-driven R&B rockers about drinkin', cheatin', and "...draggin' in / Three a.m. again / Grinnin' that silly grin / Smellin' just like sin" ("Lie No Better") with the same conviction he brings to ballads like "You Were Never Mine" or "Better Off with the Blues." He knows how to have a good time, but he's also spent more than a few hours nursing self-inflicted wounds and trying to let go of anger and hurt.

Then there's that spirit of his—the take-it-as-it-comes, weigh-the-good-with-the-bad attitude that motivates him at this point in his career to title a record One of the Fortunate Few. Delbert McClinton hasn't just survived, he's thrived—and gotten better with age. At a time when the music business is scurrying around desperate for the next fad, it's comforting to know there's still a solid melody-and-rhythm singer and songwriter out there like Delbert McClinton. Even though most of the hyberbole and platitudes apply here, they're not needed. This guy's simply for real.—Robert Baird