Off the charts

In the mid 1980s, Darrell Clanton had a hit song. After follow-up success eluded him, he came back to Florida. He's been getting rave reviews from local beach bar patrons ever since.

Published May 22, 2007

TREASURE ISLAND -- Darrell Clanton - thick gray beard, salt and pepper mane, bright blue palm trees on his shirt - is about to become the best darn tiki bar singer anyone's ever heard of.

"This is my theme song," he begins. "This song is called the Mean Woman Blues. You guys who know my wife, you know she's the meanest woman there is. She kicks her own a-- twice a day. You're just laughing because it's true."

His set at Ikky Woo Woo's Tiki Hut at the Thunderbird Beach Resort in Treasure Island lasts four hours. He shifts from covers of Elvis Presley to Jimmy Buffett to Ben E. King to The Beach Boys.

He even plays a few original tracks.

The crowd shimmies and two-steps like they have had a few too many Rum Runners and no dinner.

But missing from the playlist is the hit that made Clanton so famous 20 years ago that he opened for Hank Williams Jr. for four years, trashing hotel rooms from here to Australia.

That song, Lonesome 7-7203, is a sad, weepy ballad.

In the second life of his music career, there is no room for songs of regret.

- - -

The year is 1978 and Willie Nelson's and Waylon Jennings' Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys is the No. 1 country song in the country.

Darrell Puckett is 22 and, tracing the steps of thousands of country singer wanna-bes, has arrived in Nashville.

He gets a break and gets hired as an assistant to country legend Pete Drake. He fetches chicken when the musicians are hungry and picks up extra studio gear when they tell him to. He writes songs for other singers.

At the urging of some friends, he makes an album. He peddles it for two years. No luck.

Finally, Warner Bros. offers him a contract, but there is one condition.

The music executives tell him to change his name from Puckett to Clanton, after a town in central Alabama, the "heart of the heart of Dixie." Puckett, they say, is too common.

"At that point I wanted to be signed to Warner Bros. so bad," he later recalls, "I would have let them call me Rumpelstiltskin."

- - -

Clanton - thick black hair, thick black beard, snazzy black tuxedo - is minutes away from being the best darn country music singer anyone's ever heard of.

"Just in case your love for me should ever come around," he begins. "You might want to call and break the news to me, just call Lonesome 7-7203."

He is singing his hit at the Academy of Country Music Awards, bellowing out this song that makes grown men miss their high school girlfriends. He is nominated for New Male Vocalist of the Year. He is 27.

Lonesome has been getting airtime everywhere, so he is almost sure he is going to win. He pictures a lifetime of fame, a big house in Nashville, limos, pretty female fans hounding him, years on the road goofing off with the guys in the band. It is everything he has wanted since he was 7 and his dad handed him his first guitar.

But someone else wins.

On a recent afternoon, Clanton sits on the sofa in his mobile home in Clearwater and watches the recording of his younger self at the 1984 award show.

His mother made the recording for him back then on her VCR. He forgot to save mementos of his short-lived celebrity.

He thought it would last forever.

"The one-hit-wonder thing is hard," he says. "You didn't die, but you aren't famous anymore."

- - -

After Lonesome, Clanton wears polyester suits and lights drumsticks on fire. He wallows in whiskey and drugs. He throws up in hotel pools while on the last leg of touring.

His second song, I Forgot, I Don't Live Here Anymore, a ballad about drunken amnesia, is boycotted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Warner Bros. drops him.

For 10 years, he stays in Nashville trying to make his country career work. He produces young new artists and plays gigs on weekends. Then he is sick of Nashville. It's too hard to get the fire going again. He misses the beach.

He moves back to Florida with his fiancee, Debra, in 2003.

Friends tell him he will starve to death outside of Nashville and, at first, it seems like the truth.

When he goes looking for gigs, no one remembers Darrell Clanton, singer of Lonesome 7-7203.

He has to audition like everyone else. He gets the Saturday night summer gig at Ikky Woo Woo's in 2003. It's like going home. He first played the Thunderbird when he was 15, back when an old-school velvet lounge sat in the hotel's lobby.

He starts calling himself the Dune Doctor, a nod to his childhood at the beach. He plays songs that people want to dance to.

Soon, other gigs follow. Clanton releases an album of beach tunes. He joins a Jimmy Buffett tribute band and they open for Buffett in Tampa in 2006.

He has to stop himself from grabbing strangers on the street. He wants to tell them, "I opened for Jimmy Buffett!"

He goes back to doing gigs at small beach bars. He reflects on his career. He has been singing and writing songs for 40 years. He has never done anything else.

At this point, most has-been musicians would give up any hopes of a comeback.

Clanton plans to release an album next year titled Bottle of Dumb. He can already see the crowds screaming his name.

- - -

The concert at Ikky Woo Woo's is coming to end. Debra Puckett is taking pictures for her husband's next album cover.

His sister, a trio of friends from way back, his brother-in-law, two elderly neighbors who call themselves his roadies, a few Parrotheads and a half-dozen drunk bar patrons crowd together.

Clanton kneels in front of them, posing with his guitar. In this moment, it is 1978 all over again.

The future is full of possibilities. This time he wants to capture the journey.

"One more," he calls to his wife behind the camera. "One more."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.



The Dune Doctor

Darrell Clanton plays at the Thunderbird Beach Resort at 10700 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island, from 5 to 9 p.m. every Saturday through September.

For more information, check out Clanton's Web site at www.thedunedoctor.com.

On the Web: Listen to the Dune Doctor sing from his most recent album Some Place Sunny at www.life.tampabay.com.