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Other segments from the episode on June 14, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 14, 2005: Interview with Delbert McClinton; Commentary on language.

Transcript

DATE June 14, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Delbert McClinton talks about his music
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Back in the mid-'50s, when he was still a teen-ager, Delbert McClinton began
singing in nightclubs in Ft. Worth, Texas. That set him off on a musical
career that's lasted for nearly five decades. It's been a bumpy ride. He's
recorded albums, only to watch record labels fold under him. He was nailed by
the IRS and battled drug and alcohol abuse. And he struggled to find a
national audience, in part because his music crosses lines and blends
influences. He sounds equally at home singing with a country fiddle, a soul
band or a hard-driving blues guitar. But he's earned the respect of fellow
musicians and has built a loyal fan base by performing as many as 200 dates a
year.

In recent years, McClinton has found stability in his personal life and
business affairs, and growing acclaim for his music. He has a new album
coming out in August, and he sings two songs on a new album by Los Super Seven
called "I Heard It On The X." It's a multicultural blend of music inspired by
border radio stations on the Texas-Mexican border. Here's Delbert McClinton
with the Little Willie John song, "Talk to Me."

(Soundbite of "Talk to Me")

Mr. DELBERT McCLINTON: (Singing) Talk to me, talk to me, darlin', I love the
things you say. Talk to me, talk to me in your own sweet, gentle way. Let me
hear, tell me, dear, tell me you love me so. Talk to me, talk to me, tell me
what I want to know. The many ways you speak of love...

DAVIES: That's Delbert McClinton with the song "Talk to Me" from "Heard It On
The X" by Los Super Seven. The album is inspired by the eclectic music of
radio stations which operated for decades on the Mexican border. McClinton
sings two songs on the album.

As a kid, did you listen to border radio?

Mr. McCLINTON: Oh, yeah. That was like--well, the mystique of it was added
a great deal to by the fact that the first time I found it was on a crystal
set.

DAVIES: Oh, boy.

Mr. McCLINTON: You know what a crystal set is.

DAVIES: Yeah, well, I'm not sure all of our listeners do. You can buy them
with a kit and...

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, a crystal set is--yeah. It's a--you buy a kit at the
hobby shop, and it doesn't look anything at all like a radio. It's got this
thing a little smaller than a dime that you kind of peck around on with
another little piece, and it picks up different stations. And to me it was
God's own radio, you know. But that's the first time--I traded--I remember I
was so enamored with that crystal set--you know, they cost--I think they cost
about $3, but I traded a--I had an uncle who was in World War II, and when he
came back, he brought a whole bunch of stuff with him, and he--I had this
German dagger, Nazi dagger, that wouldn't--in the sheath, you know. And I
traded that to a guy for that crystal set. But I had to have it, you know.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. McCLINTON: And that's where I first heard border radio, and then as I got
a little older, you know, and had a car, well, you could pick it up late at
night, and it came in (technical difficulties) stations you could get out of
Chicago or Memphis or Nashville, which were also really good stations. But
border radio was--you could buy autographed pictures of Jesus on there. You
know, I mean, they sold anything...

DAVIES: Guaranteed.

Mr. McCLINTON: ...and everything.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. McCLINTON: If you wanted to buy it, send me the money and we'll send it
to you.

DAVIES: You were born in Lubbock, Texas, moved to Ft. Worth at age 11, if
I've read this right.

Mr. McCLINTON: That's right, yeah.

DAVIES: And started playing and singing early on in life.

Mr. McCLINTON: Yeah.

DAVIES: What kind of music did you listen to as a kid, as a teen-ager?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, of course in west Texas in the '40s, you heard a lot of
Bob Wills, a lot of Hank Williams and a lot of Lefty Frizzell and Nat King
Cole, Sarah Vaughan. And I had an aunt, my mother's youngest sister, who had
all these old--what they used to call race records, you know.

DAVIES: And you knew early on you had a gift for singing.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, I don't know that I knew it. I knew that I couldn't
stop doing it, you know. I mean, I--that's, you know--and I don't think I
ever made a conscious decision to become a performer. I just always kind of
was, you know what I'm saying?

DAVIES: Right. You had an Uncle Earl in Sweetwater--Did I get that
right?--who used to...

Mr. McCLINTON: That's right.

DAVIES: ...used to...

Mr. McCLINTON: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...ask you to perform for the family?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, he was--he drove a milk truck, and I went to--his oldest
son was my cousin and we were close, and I went to spend a couple of weeks
with him in Sweetwater, Texas. And Uncle Earl was just--had always been--he'd
drink and he'd get mean. He was mean when he drank and he always drank, you
know what I'm saying?

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. McCLINTON: But he heard me singing, oh, I forget what it was now, I've
lied so many times about the name of it. I think it was "Hey, Good Lookin',"
but I'm not sure.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. McCLINTON: Anyway, it was one of those old songs, either a Hank Williams
or Lefty Frizzell song, I believe, and he came running out--into the back yard
and he said, `Boy, do that again.' And so from then on, he was a good guy
because he'd get me to sing down there in the morning at the coffee shop where
all the milkmen would gather before they'd start their routes, about 3:30, 4
in the morning. And he just--he thought it was--that's the first time that I
thought, `Well, hey, you know, I think I might be on to something.'

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. McCLINTON: Because...

DAVIES: What a crowd to play to.

Mr. McCLINTON: Yeah, really.

DAVIES: So as a teen-ager, you actually started performing in clubs...

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: ...in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: Had a band, the Straitjackets, right?

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: And as I read it, you got hot and would play backup for some pretty
impressive musicians that would come moving through town. Tell us about some
of those.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, you know--well, back in that time--this was late '50s,
early '60s, you know, everybody in the world wasn't in a band, so there
weren't that many bands around. And I think that during that time I was a
part of the best band around, and there weren't but about three or four in Ft.
Worth, you know, guys out trying to play something other than country music,
you know. But we got--in the early '60s we got the opportunity to back up a
lot of my heroes, you know, regularly--Big Joe Turner, Freddy King, Lightnin'
Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker. T-Bone Walker was
just the best.

DAVIES: So you sort of went to the Juilliard School of the blues there in Ft.
Worth, didn't you?

Mr. McCLINTON: I did. I think I got into the blues that early because Dallas
had a really good station called KNOK radio, and you could hear everything on
there that you couldn't hear anywhere else. So me and the guys that I was
working with--well, we were already into blues music anyway, and I guess it
was probably because of that radio station, but because of that and us
learning those songs, we would back all these guys up when they'd come to
town.

DAVIES: You played in some pretty tough places around Ft. Worth, I gather,
and a lot of the songs you've written over the years about honky-tonkin'...

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: ...have some really evocative images of being hit with a Harley
chain...

Mr. McCLINTON: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...or cutting somebody with a bone-handled knife. Was this just
something you observed as a musician or were you also a guy who mixed it up?
I mean, did you...

Mr. McCLINTON: Oh, no, no, no, no. I was never anybody that mixed it up, but
I knew them all. Playing in those places I played, you--they're not
necessarily the Spartans of the community, but they pride themselves--I
remember one guy told me, he said, `Yeah, I'm a thief,' he said, `and I'm a
damn good one.' And I remember thinking, `Jesus, man, where do you find
the--where do you find any glory in that?' you know. But he did.

DAVIES: Right. So you didn't get into...

Mr. McCLINTON: I...

DAVIES: ...scrapes, didn't get guns pointed at you.

Mr. McCLINTON: No, no, no. Good Lord, no. I--well, I got in--I've been on
the wrong side of a pistol a couple of times, but it was generally something
about a woman.

DAVIES: Oh.

Mr. McCLINTON: Or a woman doing it, but that's a whole 'nother bag of worms.
But yeah, you know, I've seen people shot, cut up, beat up, and it's--you
know, it's nothing I want to witness anymore, but I did because I was in the
right place for that.

DAVIES: Do you think that informed the music that you wrote in some way?

Mr. McCLINTON: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, you know, that's where most of it
comes from. You know, I used to do a lot of--I used to have a lot of bad
habits and bad habits that would keep you up two, three days in a row
sometimes. And on the back side of those things, there's been an awful lot of
sad songs written. But you know, it's not something that you want to make a
way of life, but it certainly was a lesson.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. McCLINTON: And so all of that stuff that I saw and participated in,
which was--I never did anything I can't live with, but it couldn't help but
influence. But you know, I've always liked to look at that with a little bit
of hope in it, you know. Regardless of how bad the situation is--in the
writing of songs.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. McCLINTON: I always like to put, you know, `Yeah, well, but I'll make
it,' or `I'll get over that,' you know.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. McCLINTON: Because that's the only way out, man, you know?

DAVIES: Singer and songwriter Delbert McClinton. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to my interview with Texas-born singer-songwriter
Delbert McClinton. He has a new album coming out in August.

You--a lot of Americans who know your name probably aren't aware that you hit
the national playlist in 1962 when you played memorable harmonica for Bruce
Channel's hit, "Hey! Baby." Maybe we can listen to a little bit of this.

Mr. McCLINTON: Sure.

DAVIES: Let's hear it. This is Bruce Channel's hit, "Hey! Baby."

(Soundbite of "Hey! Baby")

Mr. BRUCE CHANNEL: (Singing) Hey, hey, baby, I want to know if you'll be my
girl. Hey, hey, baby, I want to know if you'll be my girl. When I saw you
walkin' down the street, I said that's the kind of gal I'd like to meet.
She's so pretty, Lord, she's fine. I'm going to make her mine, all mine.
Hey...

DAVIES: That was Bruce Channel's 1962 hit, "Hey! Baby," with my guest,
Delbert McClinton, playing harmonica.

You know, Delbert, at times it almost sounds like Bruce Channel is singing
backup vocal to your harmonica in this. It is such a memorable mouth harp
piece. Tell us about this, that recording.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, there was a guy in Ft. Worth back in that time named
Major Bill Smith, and he was a retired Air Force officer, colonel, I
think--no, not colonel, major, because they called him the Maj, or that's what
he nicknamed himself. Anyway, this guy was a really, really colorful
character, and he kind of--he was--like I said, he had retired, and he was a
wholesale meat salesman at the time. And there was one place in Ft. Worth to
record, and it was in the basement of a radio station, called Clifford Hearing
Sound Studio(ph). And it was the only game in town, so I used to hang out
there a lot. The engineer was a guy named Bob Sullivan. Used to be the
engineer on the old "Louisiana Hayride." And he told all the stories that I
wanted to hear, you know, so I just--I'd hang out there every chance I got.

And I remember--this is how Major Bill made music. We were sitting in there
one day, me and Bob, talking, and the Major swung the door--he was a real
red-faced guy. And he said, `Bob, put me down for 10:00 Saturday morning.'
And Bob says, `OK, Maj, who you bringing in?' He says, `I don't know. I'll
find somebody.' He had Bruce come in. It was the first night Bruce and I
met, and I got some guys together and we went in and recorded five songs.
"Hey! Baby" was one of them and it became a worldwide classic rock 'n' roll
song.

DAVIES: Was that harmonica riff your idea? Did they tell you what they
wanted?

Mr. McCLINTON: No, it was my idea. You know, we just started learning the
song and that's what came out.

DAVIES: Well, the legend is that you then went to Europe, touring with Bruce
Channel, and that you taught John Lennon harmonica.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, see, that legend--they keep saying that. I didn't teach
him. He was already playing harmonicas then. The night that I met John
Lennon and The Beatles, it was--Bruce and I were playing in, oh, the Tower
Ballroom, I think, in New Brighton, I think. They were the opening act.
Anyway, we got to the deal and I remember John came and asked me if I played a
chromatic harmonica on "Hey! Baby." I told him ...(unintelligible) showed
him what we did, so they came out--they only--we only did that one show
together, I think. Might have done two. But anyway, I remember that they did
come out for a week that we were in this particular part of the north of
England, they came out to two or three different shows, and we hung out and
during that time, we had harmonicas. And somewhere after that, he mentioned
that it was an influence and now it's chiseled in stone that I taught him
everything he knew.

DAVIES: Well, when you were spending that time with them--and I guess we
should note The Beatles were nothing big at the time, right? I mean...

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, they were big over there but they had yet to--it was
about a year before they hit over here in the US.

DAVIES: In the time you spent with John Lennon, did you see him improve,
change with his harmonica?

Mr. McCLINTON: You know, man, you got to look at all this in perspective.
They were another band. They were great, but there were a lot of great bands.
That whole English thing was exploding over there already, so it was amazing,
the music that we were hearing when we got over there, because this was before
Rolling Stone even, in this country. I mean, the best you could find out
about an artist was their favorite color, you know what I'm saying?

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. McCLINTON: So in England, it was--people walking down the streets in
London with guitars on their back. On the corner you could go to a newsstand
and pick up three or four different music newspapers that had everything you
wanted to know about your favorite artist. So--and the--we were over there
for a month and this--I got bombarded with all this from the day we got there,
and I was 22 years old. We were all going to change the world, you know. But
to say that I remember anything specific or personal...

DAVIES: OK.

Mr. McCLINTON: ...I'd just be lying, you know.

DAVIES: Well, Let's hear a little...

Mr. McCLINTON: I can tell you a--I can lie to you if you want me to.

DAVIES: No, that's all right. But let's hear a little of your student
playing mouth harp. This is The Beatles' "Love Me Do."

(Soundbite of "Love Me Do")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Love, love me do. You know I love you.

DAVIES: The Beatles' song "Love Me Do" with John Lennon on harmonica. My
guest, Delbert McClinton, gave him a lesson or two.

Delbert, when you heard that song, did--what'd you think?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, you know, I had forgotten all about those guys by the
time they came out, because like I was saying, to put it all in proper
perspective, why should I remember them as--out of all this other music we
heard over there and I'm still trying to soak it all in, you know? It took me
years before I really realized what an opportunity I got in getting to view
all that, you know, before a lot of people. But when that song came out, I
didn't even put the connection together.

DAVIES: All right. Well, we all think he should have sent you a fruit basket
or something, but anyway--or some fish and chips.

In the '70s, you hook up with Glen Clark and you play together for a while.

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: And eventually you--in '75, you record this--your album, "Victim of
Life's Circumstances"...

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: ...which really caught on a bit. Maybe we should hear that track.
It's memorable.

Mr. McCLINTON: Great.

(Soundbite of "Victim of Life's Circumstances")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) 6:05 AM on Sunday mornin'; I was supposed to've
left for Memphis late last night. I stopped at one of them old highway
places, and because I did I'll sleep in the Tarren County Jail tonight. I
started out tonight with good intentions, but I ended up gettin' sideways
drinkin' wine. Well, last thing I remember we was rollin', then something hit
my head and knocked me from my conscious mind. I'm a victim of life's
circumstances. I was raised around bar rooms and Friday night dances singin'
them old country songs, half the time endin' up someplace I don't belong. All
right.

DAVIES: That was "Victim of Life's Circumstances" by my guest, Delbert
McClinton.

You know, the thing that strikes me about listening to that track,
particularly when I hear it when compared to your modern stuff is just how
distinctly country the sound is and your phrasing and voice are. I mean, you
really sound like a kid who never left Sweetwater, Texas, there. Do you--does
the spirit of a certain kind of song or style inhabit your voice, you think,
and give it a quality?

Mr. McCLINTON: Oh, absolutely, absolutely it does. I just yesterday
finished mastering a new record that I got coming out in August, and it's
really got a lot of that on it as far as sounding like you're still in
Sweetwater, not so much intentionally other than that's just ingrained in me
so deep. And a lot of songs that I've written lately call for that or demand
that or just--you know. So on the new record, there's an awful lot of that
hearkening back to Sweetwater.

DAVIES: Singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton. He'll be back in the second
half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Well, I've been mistreated, been lied to and
cheated, misused and abused like something that you threw away.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of "Good Man, Good Woman")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Gotta find a good woman, good woman, good woman,
yeah, yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: Coming up, more of our interview with musician and singer Delbert
McClinton. This is his duet with Bonnie Raitt called "Good Man, Good Woman."
Also, linguist Geoff Nunberg discusses myths surrounding the origins of some
racial and sexual epithets.

(Soundbite of "Good Man, Good Woman")

Ms. BONNIE RAITT and Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, hey.

Ms. RAITT: (Singing) It was 12:00 in the midnight hour. I heard the door
slam and then the shower.

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) When I got up, you were already gone. I slipped and
fell in the water you left on. Gotta find a good woman.

Ms. RAITT: (Singing) Gonna find a good man.

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) I've gotta find a good woman.

Ms. RAITT: (Singing) Well, I'm gonna find a good man.

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) I gotta find a good woman.

Ms. RAITT: (Singing) I'm gonna find a good man.

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) I've gotta find a good woman.

Ms. RAITT: (Singing) Baby, find a good man.

Ms. RAITT and Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, hey.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with singer Delbert McClinton who spent more
than 40 years performing his own blend of blues, country, rock and soul music.
He got his start singing in Texas clubs in the '50s and by the '70s had begun
to emerge as a recording artist. But some of the darkest days of his life and
career were still ahead.

Now there was a time in the '70s when you began making regular guest
appearances on "Saturday Night Live," which was then, you know, a huge
national hit...

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: ...kind of making its mark on the national consciousness.

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: How did you become an "SNL" regular?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, one night when I was playing the :one Star Cafe in New
York, Belushi and Aykroyd came out, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and as a
matter of fact, that night, there was--Jimmy Buffett was there. Joe Ely was
there. God, I can't remember who else was there, but a lot of people.
Anyway, because of that, John and I got to be--I won't say close friends, but
every time we came to town, he'd come out. And he's the one that got us on
the show the first time. But, you know, he was great, man. I can say nothing
bad about him. When he came to--he turned into a whole completely different
person when he was impressed with your music and would talk to you about it.
He became this humble little guy that was so totally different from John
Belushi. But I recognized it as the same kind of thing that I had at a time
where I just--all I wanted was all I could get, you know.

DAVIES: In 1980, you had a hit, "Givin' It Up for Your Love."

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: Why don't we listen to some of that and we can talk about it a bit?

Mr. McCLINTON: OK.

DAVIES: This is your 1980 hit, "Givin' It Up for Your Love."

(Soundbite of "Givin' It Up for Your Love")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) Givin' it up for your love everything. Givin' it
up for your love right now. Givin' it up for your love I said everything.
Givin' it up for your love right now, right now. My heart is aching for you,
I can't stand it. I need your loving and I know it's magic. I'm givin' it up
for your love, everything.

DAVIES: That was "Givin' It Up for Your Love" by my guest, Delbert McClinton.
That's a whole different sound from the--sort of the country sound we heard on
"Victim of Life's Circumstances."

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: Tell us about this track.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, I didn't write it, for one thing.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. McCLINTON: A friend of mine, Jerry Lynn Williams, wrote it who's a
great songwriter. And the way I found that song, I was over to a friend's
house one day and he said, `Hey, Jerry's got a new record out, have you heard
it?' And I said, `No.' So he played it for me and that song just really
stuck out. But I forgot about it. And a short time afterward, I was at
another friend's house and he says, `Hey, have you heard Jerry's new record?'
I said, `Yeah, but let's listen again.' When we did, I made a point of
getting the record and learning that song. And when I went to record the
first record I did for Mussel Shoals/Capitol, I took it in to Barry Beckett,
who was producing the record, and I said, `Here's our hit.' And he listened
to it and he said, `I think you're right,' you know, and it was.

DAVIES: This was a time when you were getting an audience and a real
following among musicians. I mean, Emmylou Harris recorded one of your songs
and made it a hit. But I wonder if you think it made it harder for you to get
a real national audience because people didn't know where to place you. I
mean, you did country, you did R&B, you did soul. I think you said just call
it Delbert music at the time.

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, you know, what else? I don't care what they call it,
you know, as long as they like it and go get it, you know. You know, I don't
know, you know, I just sit and pick at that forever and try to figure out why
this or why that, but, you know, I don't care anymore because it's all worked
out really well. You know, I thought every record I ever made was going to do
really well, which has not been the case, but the last four have done
exceptionally well, or the last three, and I'm speaking of four. The next one
coming out is the best of them all.

DAVIES: The '80s were a rough stretch for you. You know, you're certainly
not the only entertainer to have fallen prey to the bottle or substance abuse
of one kind or another. But on the other hand, everybody's story is personal.

Mr. McCLINTON: Right.

DAVIES: Looking back on it, does any particular explanation come for you, you
getting into trouble with drugs?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, once again, I was in the atmosphere part and, hell, I
thought everybody did it, you know, That was the atmosphere I was in and I
liked it. And it was a trap that I walked into just like so many other
people. But because of the music, I came upon in my life where I said, `If I
don't stop doing what I'm doing, I'm not going to get to make music.' And it
was a pretty hard lesson. I had a friend, who's dead now, he nodded out after
going to San Antone and picking up smack and was headed back to Ft. Worth and
nodded out and did a head-on with a semi. But he was the guy that started
bringing junk around. Of course, he didn't call it junk, he called
it--`Here, you want a little backup? If, you know, you back up that coke with
this, it'll mellow you out.' And I was one of the many guys around Ft. Worth
who started snorting junk. But I realized pretty quick that, you know,
anything that's that good is going to have a back side to it that's equally as
bad. And I started seeing that happen with some of my other friends. And so
I just completely stopped.

DAVIES: You develop a good friendship with the New York radio personality Don
Imus in this stretch, right?

Mr. McCLINTON: Right. Yeah.

DAVIES: Now was he a fellow partyer or was he a guy who helped you find your
way out of it?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, it was kind of unique the way Don and I met 'cause he
came out--once again, came out to a show at The Lone Star Cafe, which was a
famous place back in the '70s there in New York. I don't know if you're aware
of that or not. I can't imagine anybody who's not. But anyway, it was the
little piece of Texas in New York City. And my girlfriend at the time, who's
my wife now, Wendy, said, `Don Imus is here and wants to talk to you.' And I
said, `Well, who's Don Imus?' And she said, `Well, he's a disc jockey here in
town, you know, a radio talk guy.' And I remember around then, he and I both
got to talking about our bad habits and how we needed to stop doing it and
laugh at ourselves. And then the next time I'd come to town and he'd come out
and he'd say, `Well, how you doing?' And I say, `Well, I'm doing pretty good
in this area and that and that.' And I think we both got completely cleaned
up, except both of us are totally addicted to Nicorette gum. I gotta start
smoking to get off this gum.

DAVIES: You're still chewing Nicorette gum?

Mr. McCLINTON: Oh, yeah, yeah, just like him. Man, it's awful. It just goes
on all the time.

DAVIES: Singer and songwriter Delbert McClinton. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to my interview with singer/songwriter Delbert
McClinton. He has two songs on the album, "Heard It On The X" by Los Super
Seven.

You mentioned Wendy Goldstein. You met her and she is now your wife.

Mr. McCLINTON: Yes.

DAVIES: What role did she play in getting your life together?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, she's my hero. She saved me. She did it all. I met
her at the first "Saturday Night Live" we did. She's a producer for NBC News.
And we kind of had a thing going on there for several years, you know. And
finally, my second marriage went completely in the toilet because of me. And
at that point, she and I got together and eventually got married, and we've
got a 12-year-old daughter together. But she came along just as the IRS
informed me that this tax shelter that--the accountant that was managing what
little money I had in Austin got me in a tax shelter that got disallowed and
they said, `You owe us $280,000.' At this time, I was making $750 a night,
that included paying four guys, gasoline and hotel. So you can imagine how we
were living, four or five guys in a room, you know. You couldn't go to the
bathroom without walking across other roll-away beds. But it was a grand
time, man, you know. It was--sometimes the best times in your life I think
are when you're starving to death, you know.

DAVIES: Were you clean then?

Mr. McCLINTON: When--let me think. Well, that's...

DAVIES: That's when the IRS came after you.

Mr. McCLINTON: ...right after I started cleaning up. Wendy had come into my
life and she turned all that around. So, yeah, that's--I was clean at that
time. I'd been clean for about a year. And she just came in and turned it
all around and got the IRS off my back for the last 80,000. But before that,
the 200,000, I had to sell my house in Texas. I had to sell everything.
Nothing was in my name. And that tax guy that was literally on my case called
in one day because he'd heard one of my songs on the radio and wanted to know
where that money goes to so he can get it. And then...

DAVIES: And you said, `Let me tell you about the record business, buddy.'

Mr. McCLINTON: I said, `Well, you just need to talk to these guys. And if
you can get something out of...'

DAVIES: Well, the record--yeah, I mean, the record business was tough with
you. I mean, you had labels collapse out from under you. And I gather when
Wendy kind of helped you get your life together, she helped with the business
side of it. You...

Mr. McCLINTON: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: ...established your own label, bought your own touring bus, is that
right?

Mr. McCLINTON: Yeah. Yeah. We bought an old bus from a church out in
Irving, Texas, and spent about $40,000 getting it all done up like we wanted
it and drove it till the wheels came off and got another one. But she's the
smartest person I've ever met. And a guy like me needs somebody like that.

DAVIES: Marrying a smart woman is one of the smartest things you can do.

Mr. McCLINTON: Absolutely. Well, not only just a smart woman, but I'm crazy
about her. She's my best friend, and she's my hero.

DAVIES: It was in the late '90s that after you'd done the album, one of the
fortunate few, that the record label--you had a promising start for what
looked like it might be a hit album, and then the record label collapsed.

Mr. McCLINTON: Right. Well, that was Rising Tide Records. It was a part of
Universal, and they pumped a whole lot of money into it. And I had one of the
fortunate few come out and it was up and running better than any record I'd
had going. And three months after the release with Rising Tide, I got a call
from Universal in New York and said, `Stop everything. There is no more
Rising Tide.' They had just bought--that's when, you know, all these record
conglomerates were buying each other up. There's only about two record
companies in the world anymore. In New York, there were three that are major
companies. Anyway, they said they had to cut some corners so they pulled the
plug on it. Just like blowing out a candle, there wasn't another word spoke
about it anywhere.

DAVIES: And they owned your work, right?

Mr. McCLINTON: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: So it went nowhere. And what lesson did you draw from that
experience?

Mr. McCLINTON: Well, I learned to not trust anybody but me, unfortunately,
you know. I mean, bottom line was I'd had every record company from 1972 to
1981 went out of business while I was on the label. One of them, when I had
the first record I ever had go into the top 100 Billboard, the same week that
it went in, Capricorn Records declared bankruptcy and had their phones pulled
out.

DAVIES: Oh, gosh.

Mr. McCLINTON: So I decide...

DAVIES: That's kind of a hard luck story.

Mr. McCLINTON: ...so I decided, you know, if I'm going to take another fall,
it won't be nobody's fault but mine. So I went in on my own dime and
recorded--got Gary Nicholson, a good friend of mine who I write a lot with and
who's a very talented guy. We got together, and we wrote a bunch of songs and
worked--I was exploring the possibility of, you know, Internet sales and all
that, which I quickly learned you got to have a network if you want to sell
any records. So I got to talking with Cameron Strang from New West Records
who is a really unusual guy in this business because he's very artist friendly
and he does what he says he'll do, which is just unheard of. So we started
making preparations to get "Nothing Personal" out and it went on to win a
Grammy.

DAVIES: Right. The album "Nothing Personal" was--won the Grammy for best
contemporary blues album 2001.

Mr. McCLINTON: Right. Right.

DAVIES: Well, that's a good time maybe to hear a track from that. This is a
fun song, "Living It Down." Let's listen to this.

Mr. McCLINTON: There you go.

DAVIES: Let's listen to this, Delbert McClinton and "Living It Down."

(Soundbite of "Living It Down")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) My ship came in and she sunk it. I was a drunkster
of the town and she drunk it. I had a run of good luck and she ran it right
into the ground. And now she's putting on a show and I get to play the clown.
I had the wind in my sails and she took it. I had the world by the tail and
she shook it. I reached out for a life line and she threw me a noose. I got
the short end of the chicken and she got the golden goose. She's living it up
and I'm trying to live it down. Just when I got it all together, it's all
about to come unwound. Everybody laughing behind my back, man, it sure is a
sad old sound. She's out there living it up and I'm trying to live it down.
Oh, man, I have a hard time.

DAVIES: That was the song "Living It Down" by my guest, Delbert McClinton.
It is from his album, "Nothing Personal," which won a Grammy in 2001.

Do you still perform 150 dates a year? I mean, you have been doing this a
long, long time.

Mr. McCLINTON: No, I'm not doing but about 100, you know.

DAVIES: That's a lot. I mean...

Mr. McCLINTON: It is a lot, but that's what I do.

DAVIES: Is it still as much fun?

Mr. McCLINTON: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, I can't go out and stay on the
road a month and play five nights a week anymore, I mean, for several reasons.
First, I'm not as young as I used to be. And my voice doesn't recover as
quickly as it used to, so I work two to three days a week usually, you know,
take a week or two off on occasion, but it's--I work as much as I want to.
How's that?

DAVIES: OK. Well, Delbert McClinton, we'll look forward to your next album.
Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. McCLINTON: It'll be out in August.

DAVIES: Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. McCLINTON: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Singer/songwriter Delbert McClinton. He's still performing and has a
new album coming out in August. This is his song "I Want To Love You."

(Soundbite from "I Want To Love You")

Mr. McCLINTON: (Singing) I want to love you, take you in my arms and love
you. It's not just because you're always on my mind, with me all the time. I
just want to love you. I want to kiss you. Girl, I'll let you know I miss
you. I'm having feelings like I've never had before and all I want is more.
I just want to love you. Baby, are you ready to stop wasting time? Wouldn't
find you if I let my love light shine? I want to trust you. I turn my
feelings over to you, let you see the frightened child inside of me, how frail
a man can be. I just want to love you.

DAVIES: Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the origins of some racial and
sexual epithets. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Origins of some racial and sexual epithets
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Plenty of stories have arisen over the years about the origins of racial and
sexual epithets. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg says most of them are true, but
they bear insights into how we think about words.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

The Washington, DC, Court of Appeals will be ruling soon on a case involving a
petition to cancel the trademark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds
that the law forbids the registration of trademarks that are disparaging.
Several years ago, I served pro bono as the linguistics expert for the group
of Indians who brought that petition, and I wrote a report documenting the
word's long history as an epithet, often a very nasty one. One thing you
won't find in that report, though, is a story that you often hear nowadays
about where redskin comes from. As a lot of people tell it, the word
originally referred not to skin color but to the bloody Indian scalps that
white authorities paid bounties for.

It's true that the origins of the word are lost in the 17th century, but as
best I can tell, there's no historical record that connects the word redskin
to the bounties for scalps. And, in fact, nobody seems to have mentioned the
connection until about a dozen years ago. So it's almost certain that the
word was originally a reference to skin color. After all, people refer to
Indians as the red man, too, and that couldn't have anything to do with
scalps. Not that Indians are really red, anymore than people of other races
are really white, black or yellow, but that Crayola theory of racial
groupings runs very deep in our culture. And when kindergartners sit down at
the play table, those are the crayons they reach for.

In a way, that story about redskins seems no different from the other tall
tales that people pass around about word origins, what the linguist Larry Horn
calls `etymythologies.' There's the story that `posh' began as an acronym for
port out, starboard home; the one that says that `hooker' came from the name
of a Civil War general or the one that says that `son of a gun' originally
referred to children born on a gun deck of a ship, all plausible sounding, all
wrong.

You can find a whole collection of these tales in a very entertaining book by
the etymologist Dave Wilton called "Word Myths." Of course, most of these
stories aren't really myths in the narrow sense of the term. They're more on
the order of little scraps of lexical romance that make a nice filler for the
`did you know' column in the Sunday newspaper. But the story about the origin
of redskin is a myth in the deeper sense. It's a story that's meant to
illuminate a social truth, as if to say that the history of violence toward
Indians is buried in the very words that people use to talk about them.

You see a lot of stories like that one nowadays, which attribute obscure and
malignant origins to words relating to ethnic groups or sexual orientations.
Look on the Web, and you'll find hundreds of pages relating how `faggot' is
derived from the bundle of sticks that the medievals used when they burned
homosexuals at the stake. But, in fact, faggot comes from an early 19th
century word for a shrewish woman which might derive from the image of
something dry and brittle. And it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th
century that people started to use the word for male homosexuals. Or take the
story of how `dyke' was derived from the name of the British Queen Boudicca
who led a revolt against the Romans in the first century and whose name became
a synonym for a threatening woman. Actually, the word only appeared in the
1930s and most likely comes from a version of hermaphrodite.

And there's no truth to the story that `handicap' refers to the idea that the
disabled had to go begging, cap in hand. The word actually derives from a way
of leveling the stakes in an uneven wager, where people put a certain amount
of forfeit money in a hat. And it's been used at horse races since the
mid-18th century, but it's only in the past century or so that people have
referred to disabled people as the handicapped. For that matter, the phrase
`rule of thumb' didn't originate with a law that said a man couldn't beat his
wife with a stick that was any thicker than his thumb. And there's no more
truth to the stories you hear that attribute racist origins to expressions
like `picnic' and `the jig is up.'

I can understand why people find stories like these believable. Word origins
can sometimes be pretty bizarre and some words really did originate with
ethnic or sexual slurs that are lost to memory now. `Gyp' comes from Gypsy
and `mollycoddle' comes from an old use of molly to mean a homosexual. Even
the ordinary word `bad' probably originated with an Anglo-Saxon disparagement
for an effeminate man.

But it doesn't really matter where any of these words come from. Since
Plato's time, people have thought of words as carrying around their origins
like original sin, as if some long forgotten sense could still have the power
to infect their meanings. But if redskin and the rest are ugly words today,
it's not because they bear some hidden historical taint, it's because they
conjure up ugly ideas that are still with us.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is the author of "Going Nuclear: Language, Politics
and Culture in Confrontational Times" just out in paperback.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

We'll end today's program with music from the great jazz pianist Hank Jones.
Terry recently recorded an interview with him, which we'll hear on Monday.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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