He strides across the kitchen floor, his tall, lean frame dressed in a black T-shirt, a guitar cradled in his arms, sunglasses hugging the crown of his midnight black Stetson. As he casually tosses one blue-denimed leg over a chair and slides into it, a shy grin creeps across his weathered face. His fingers encircle the neck of the 1974 Martin acoustic guitar and he strums a few warm-up chords. Scrawled in black marker on the body of the instrument, just above the sound hole, is a name and date: Merle Haggard 1998. Raking his fingers across the strings, he closes his eyes and soon the walls reverberate with his rich Southern baritone:
“Doin’ what I gotta do,
Not what I want to,
Workin’ at the blast furnace all day,
Just tryin’ to make my pay…”
Although Ernie McClinton, native son of Oakman, played high school defensive and offensive end for the Wildcats in the 1970s, he confesses his heart was always in music. “I always loved sports but music was what really got me,” he says in an easy drawl.
Born in 1961, the youngest of seven children, Ernie seemingly inherited his natural talent for music from his father, a lifelong coal miner. “The end of my daddy’s fingers was cut off. It happened in the mines,” Ernie says. “He used to tell me he played old barn dances until he got his fingers cut, so he had music in him, and all three of my brothers sang.”
Music was always a part of the McClinton household. As a young boy, Ernie became enamored with it, often listening to artists like the Statler Brothers and Elvis.
Then one day when Ernie was in the ninth grade, Waylon Jennings entered his life and tossed out the rulebook. “I was riding home from football practice with a buddy of mine named Ricky Tubbs,” Ernie recalls. “He had a Waylon 8-track tape that he put on. I heard that and I said, ‘That’s the kind of stuff I wanna do.’ That changed the whole deal for me. And that’s basically what I’ve done the last thirty-five years.”
From that day on, music became deeply entrenched in the grooves of Ernie’s soul. It mingled with his blood, it became embedded inside his corpuscles, it encircled and permanently grafted to his veins and arteries. Even forty some-odd years later, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and “Lonesome, Ornery, and Mean” are still among his favorite songs.
Ernie learned to play guitar and in 1981 he formed his own band, Outlaw Family, with original members Steve Hagood, Jeff Parnell, Scott Kimbrell, Jeff McAdams, and David Guthrie. “The first time we practiced was at Walker College Chapel,” he says. “As we got the group going we’d have these pasture parties up in Saragossa.”
Before long, their music was getting attention. “The law would be called pretty regular, telling us they’d had complaints and to turn it down. We had outdoor parties for years and years up there,” he grins.
For a while Ernie worked at his auto parts job during the week and played music on the weekends. A few years later the band, renamed Shotgun, was booking shows on the road. “We got to where we were traveling a lot, and we had a bus,” Ernie says. “We’d play a lot in South Alabama, all around Camden, Demopolis, Greensboro, Eufaula, plus playing around here at Bill’s Pub when it was open. You know one of them all night trips…you leave here at three in the afternoon going to Greensboro, you pull back in the next morning and the sun’s coming up a lot of times, it gets old. The older you get, it gets to you. You gotta love it to do that.”
Ernie admits there is one thing he’d rather do than play music. “I like to play and sing but I’d rather write songs,” he says. “In 1990 I signed a songwriting deal with Tom Collins Music. I went to Nashville once a month. I was a staff writer for Tom Collins. Then he sold out to Acuff-Rose, who sold to Sony. I’ve got fifty-three songs with them now. It was good to be with Sony because they’re the biggest publisher in the world, but if you’re not up there all the time pitching your songs, you get lost in the shuffle.”
His songs cover such topics as heroes, streaks of bad luck, and coal miners. He draws inspiration from everyday life. “Just real-life stuff, like that laid back ‘Mr. Yesterday,’” Ernie says. “My daddy used to call me ‘Mossie’. His mother’s maiden name was Mostella. They were all just sort of laid back and he’d call me ‘Mossie’ when I was growing up. One day I just wrote this song.”
Ernie penned another popular song, The Coal Miner, after two local mines closed down. “My brother was working at Gorgas #7 when they shut it and Segco down. My uncle was at Segco. It just hit me, so many people being out of work. Back then, that was really all there was around here.”
Ernie and his wife Denise have co-written a few songs together as well. “We’ve got one song called ‘Whiskey, Guitars, and Elvis,’” Denise says. “It’s kind of crazy that two bands on the Internet have found it and are claiming it as their song. We actually wrote it in 1999 on our honeymoon.”
If 1990 could be classified as one of his best years, 2004 would definitely be among the worst. “2004 was a rough year,” Ernie says, shaking his head. “I lost my older brother ‘Mister,’ my mother-in-law, and then thirteen days later my mom passed, all within a six month period. It’s just something you don’t get over, you just do the best you can. It sort of shuts your world down for awhile.” Ernie’s T-shirt has the word MISTER, his brother’s childhood nickname, printed across the chest in white block letters.
Reeling from the devastating triumvirate of family tragedies, Ernie sought refuge in the safe harbor of music. “Music has always been my escape,” he says. “A lot of times I close my eyes and I don’t even realize nobody is out there. I get lost in it. To me, that’s what music’s all about. People would be complaining about little problems and after the year we had in ‘04, you know, that’s nothing. You can deal with that until something like this hits you. I guess I quit whining about stuff that didn’t matter. There’s a line in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song that goes, Lord I can’t make these changes/All I can do is write them in a song. I turned back to music like I always have and it seemed to help me through.”
Shotgun played hundreds of shows all over Alabama for over two decades, including opening for Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Marshall Tucker Band, David Allan Coe, Tracy Lawrence, Dixie Chicks, and Charlie Daniels. “I heard a song the other day, ‘I ain’t old, I’ve just been around a long time,’” Ernie grins. “We put out two cassettes with original songs and one CD. That’s how long we’ve been around.”
But even with the stress of traveling every week for a show, there were a few lighter moments, like the one Ernie refers to as The Wireless Story. “I used to have this wireless headset,” he says. “We used to run around and act like idiots. We’d get up on the bar and dance around, just trying to put on a show. We played this outdoor party in Demopolis. I’d had a couple so I went out to the bus and laid in the seat. In between songs they kept hearing something going cccccckkkkkhhhhhh. They were checking cords and saying, ‘What in the world is that noise?’ Well, I’d left my headset on and it was coming over the PA and they were going crazy. They finally came out and told Denise to turn that headset off,” he laughs.
The group disbanded in 2003 but reunited on stage in 2016 for a show at the Foothills Festival. “We just took a break for a while,” Ernie shrugs. “This last Foothills Festival was the first time the last group of Shotgun had gotten together in about twelve years. We were traveling a lot on the bus, and it got to be more like a job.”
The band lineup has undergone several changes since it was formed, and Ernie says he’s shared the stage with numerous talented people. “Through the years, Shotgun has consisted of some of the best musicians that I’ve ever played with: Larry Key, Randy Mott, Lamar Winsett, Eric Swann, Michael Keeton, Jason Ory, Sonny Skinner, Gary Van Horn, Kendall Benson, Landon Taylor, and Terry Merchant. I want to thank our sound engineers Kim Clouse and Randy Moore, Mark Davis, who was our lighting technician, and all our friends who helped load equipment over the years.”
These days Ernie gets his music fix by writing songs and playing acoustic sets at local venues like Warehouse 319. “I started doing acoustic stuff and found out I could make more money and not have near the headache,” he says. “You don’t have all the equipment so you can just carry a guitar and a small PA and play once a month, get the music out of your system.”
His current set of songs mixes his original material with older classics by other artists. “I’ve been playing the same stuff for years but every time I learn a new song, people will come up and request the older stuff like ‘Outlaw Women’ or any of the old Hank (Jr.) stuff.”
Then Mr. Yesterday leans back in his chair in that nonchalant way, strums a few chords, and once again that rich, Southern baritone spreads its wings and takes flight:
“Prayin’ I can make it through,
Until I get home to you,
Doing what I gotta do,
And not what I want to.”
Maybe Hank actually did it this way after all. 78
By request this article is dedicated to Ernie’s good friend “The Living Legend,” who has Lou Gehrig’s disease.
You can find Ernie McClinton’s music on his Youtube channel,
and weekday mornings on Country Legends 88.5 FM, WJBE with Scottie Howton and Joe Cooke.