FOR THE RECORD DELBERT McCLINTON, "Keeper of the Flame" (Capricorn CPN 0223). MICHAEL MURPHEY, "Peaks Valleys Honky-Tonks & Alleys" (Epic JE 35742). MICHAEL NESMITH, "Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma" (Pacific Arts PAC7-130).
Although Austin has never succeeded in replacing either Nashville or Los Angeles as a recording center, Texas has always been the musical mecca toward which a handful of variously country or rock artists bowed. In fact, since L.A. cannot be said to have an emotional attraction for more than its demented inhabitants - "Hooray for Hollywood" long ago gave way to "Hotel California," "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," etc. - Texas runs a close second in musical loyalties.
One Texas faction endorsed a particularly pugnacious brand of Southern redneck rock, a faction most notably represented by Z Z Top. Western swing still holds sway, of course, and the reverence in which Bob Wills was held has been bequeathed in no small part to his rockier apostles, Asleep at the Wheel. Traditional country and country and western performers could make a comfortable living touring Texas alone.
Then there's the beer-bar belt, its brass buckle located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where black blues merges with rock'n'roll and produces a Delbert McClinton. And even before Waylon/Willie turned Luckenbach into electric outlaw territory, writers like Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Murphey and Guy Clark had sparked a Remington-Western renaissance in the nightclubs of Austin.
These members of the Texas musical party share not only their metaphors (the wide open spaces vs. the clumsy trampings of technology, etc.) and a fondness for simple rhythms, they are typically "live" performers who have trouble catching fire in the studio. Few people who have seen Delbert McClinton cut loose his half-broke harmonica have been able to resist the ride; but his albums have trotted into bargain-bin obscurity with depressing regularity.
McClinton's new album, his second for Capricorn, is appropriately called "Keeper of the Flame." McClinton has been tending the flames of bar blues all his life, and just because he's enough of a Manhattan-Lone Star Cafe cult figure to have played "Saturday Night Live" this year doesn't mean he intends to dress up his well-worn blues. This is classic McClinton: Knowing, bawky, roughly tender like a callused hand.
But McClinton cognoscenti wait to see his second show, since the first is just a warmup; and an album just doesn't give him time to get hot. Side one of "Keeper of the Flame" is far more laid back than side two, so if you want the roll before the rock, start from the back. Best cuts include "Plain Old Makin' Love," the Muscle Shoals slink of "Have Mercy" and "Seesaw," and McClinton's own aching "I Received a Letter."
Incidentally, McClinton fans should checkout the cover photograph, which makes him look like a sensual Patrick McGoohan.
Michael Murphey (now an Austin expatriate) is another club-circuit veteran whose powers of persuasion have never been translated onto vinyl. "Peaks Valleys Honky-Tonks and Alleys" is half-live (recorded at the Palomino Club) and half new studio-recorded material. It's also half-successful.
The live version of "Blackslider's Wine," with harmony by Katy Moffatt, is exquisite, and "Cosmic Cowboy" retains the wry edge that made it such a perfect anthem for the early '70s California sound, pre-outlaw. But "Geronimo's Cadillac," Murphey's original excursion into the Indian-rights cause (and imagery) that has gripped him ever since is held baffingly in check.
Of the new material, "Another Cheap Western," topped off with a verse or two of "My Baby Loves the Western Movies," is the most fun. There is, however, no song with the bracing bitterness that colored "No Man's Land," for example, from his last album.
Michael Nesmith isn't, strictly speaking, of the Texas contingent, but his writing has been so influential in the field ("Some of Shelly's Blues," "Different Drum," "Propinquity") that he can be squeezed into the discussion. Nesmith's writing (and yes, we are talking about the former Monkee) has usually been blessed with a poker-faced wit that made it stand out from the mass of social-commentary California rock("Has anyone here seen Jesus? He is gone from where I laid him down . . ."). His albums with the First and Second National Bands were underrated masterpieces - so underrated that he seems to have misplaced the artistic ghost.
The wittiest thing about Nesmith's new album is the title, "Infinite Ride on the Big Dogma" (Pacific Arts PAC7-130). The subtlety has vanished along with the pedal steel guitar and harmonica. The album is a collection of parodies - a Little Anthony falsetto here, a not-quite-disco dance tune there, over yonder a "Copacabana" Carmen Miranda nostalgia number - and preachments: "There are a bunch of different holy men pointing different ways / Don't think, Do think, Watch out what you say." But don't worry, the album is obviously an aberration of a temporarily distracted creativity. CAPTION: Picture, DELBERT McCLINTON, KNOWING AND ROUGHLY TENDER, LIKE A CALLUSED HAND.