Delbert McClinton shouldn't have to spend the first warm Sunday of the season looking for a laundromat. He shouldn't get smashed in the mouth by a falling electric piano. He shouldn't have to worry about broken fan belts and fading batteries.

"Delbert McClinton ought to have a roadie, but he don't," he says, estimating the loss of money and time the trailing belt will cost. "If I ever make any money. I'm going to lease a bus . . . and hire a roadie."

But this is the first time in his 20 years of playing hot southern rhythm 'n' blues that McClinton can say even that the tour is "paying for itself." The battered van is his own, the trailer is rented. So it's Delbert who does the worrying, and the habit will be too old to break by the time he can afford the roadie. "I'd at least have to stand there and tell him what to do."

A long weekend's work, harsh sunlight and "vehicle" troubles redden McClinton's eyelids and screw up the creases around his pale blue eyes. On a spring morning in Washington he looked his 37 years; at home in Dallas, or from the audience of the dimly-lit Childe Harold, when he returns for two sets tonight and tommorrow, he can look 10 years younger.

Except for the pile of amplifiers and guitars, he could be mistaken for one of the farmers from the agriculture movement. He is wiry and taut in his T-shirt and jeans, his face with that leathery look that passes for tan all year round. From time to time he lifts the yellow cap by the bill and slides it back from the bridge of the nose into exactly the same crease of undisciplined, chewed-cut hair.

He rubs Vaseline from a borrowed tube into his split lip, sliced when he couldn't find a place to put the piano down before it fell. Liberal applications of both the Vaseline and tequila have been known to whip him into a harp-blowing frenzy lasting until 3 a.m.

His full-throttle performances have made him the musician's musician among those country-rockers and high-rollers who retain a little Texas in their souls. Greg "Fingers" Taylor, the harmonica player in Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band and a highly respected sessions man himself, says, "Delbert McClinton - he's my idol. He's 10 years older than me, and anytime I get a chance to see him, I'll go anywhere."

A month ago, opening for Johnny Paycheck at Los Angeles' Roxy Theater, McClinton was visited backstage by such luminariesas Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris (whose version of Delbert's "Two More Bottles of Wine" went to No. 1 on the country charts), actors Jan-Michael Vincent and Gary Busey (star of "The Buddy Holly Story") and Roy Orbison, the most reclusive star in country music. Willie Nelson, the wise old man of the Texas movement, dropped into Nashville's Old Time Pickin' Parlor to say hello. And John Belushi, who with cohort Dan Ackroyd hopes to launch a blues-singing career, is a new devotee who will drop everything to play McClinton's albums.

My baby told me such a long time age

You're gonna miss me someday

My baby told me such a long time ago

You're gonna wish you had stayed.

It's been a long time, honey,

And I'm gone still;

I think about you some

And I guess I always will

Never losing, at least I'm moving,

And it's easier to live with than standing still.

That was the Delbert McClinton who is legendary as a raunching, womanizing, hard-drinking survivor of the school of Texas beer bars. At 17, he started playing in joints where the audiences either passed the hat or threw the bottles.

He's written about "Honky-tonkin," I guess I done me some/I've seen the bullets in the chamber from the other end of the gun," and of "cutting up some honky-tonk with a bone-handled knife." But at the Childe Harold, in the calm before the show, he toys with a shot glass and a lemon. "I'm not a bad. . .," he shrugs. "I've been standing next to a guy who got a knife in his ribs, but I wasn't the guy holding the knife."

It was the harmonica that gave him his first break. It was McClinton, sitting in, whose cheerfully impudent harp made a hit out of Bruce Channel's "Hey, Baby" in 1962. Touring England with Channel, Delbert gave an impromptu harp lesson to a young Liverpool group - and thus inspired the harmonica arrangement in the Beatles' "Love Me Do."

When that faded, McClinton went back to Texas. For a decade he formed and reformed bands, cut an occasional record, and wrote a little more. He was on the move a lot, and says now that most of his songs have been written in some "vehicle" or other. "AVW van is good, because of the noise - it's like taking a shower, you can yell and scream."

She said, "Just a minute, baby,

Can't you see a I'm a lady?"

I said, "Scuse my move, honey,

I though you was gettin' down."

Just as I was leavin',

She took hold of my sleeve 'n'

Said, "On second thought,

Why don't you stick around?"

Sea Oats Music

In 1975, McClinton signed with ABC and came out with the first of three albums. Despite the frantic attempts of a few critics, all three went directly to the bargain basement bins.

"Second Wind," his first ablum for Capricorn, was released in February; like his earlier albums, it has been very favorably received by critics, but sales are logging. The release a fortnight ago of a single, "Take It Easy," is expected to give album sales a boost.

"We're tryin' for that big hit single in the sky," he deadpans, "but it don't seem like we're the type - ain't never had one." The pressure of picking a likely hit from the album delayed the single's release for several months, as McClinton and Capricorn wavered from one favorite to another. The final (and original choice has the strong, tightly controlled emotion of Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," and the sensuous, contrapuntal female chorus.

Throughout the conversation, without losing track to his thoughts, McClinton trades rough jokes with his band. One is drinking a chocolate soda called a Yahoo; another is cracking wise about the fan belt. He is sent off for directions to the nearest service station. As he leaves, Delbert says quietly, "I've got the best band I've had in 14 years. We're pulling a strong show." The band works, and drinks, pretty much within its own group.

"Everybody in the band is in control of themselves. We don't have to babysit anybody. They can take care of their bidness. I don't care how drunk somebody gets, so long as he can take care of his bidness."

McClinton is on the downslope of his parabolic character. He is ready to go home, and the fan belt seems to add hours to the weeks that lie between Washington and Dallas. He wants to see his wife, the 16-year-old son (by his first marriage) and their 3-year-old "baby."

"I'm somebody else on the road, and somebody else at home," he explains "When I go home, I don't go out or nothin'. I get all of that out of my system when I'm gone." All but one member of the band has children, "but we don't talk about it. If somebody started saying, 'Man, I wish I could see my kids," we'd all go crazy."

Thinking about home has made McClinton restless. He slides into the driver's seat and headsfor a gas station, looking the long way toward Texas.