Boudleaux & Felice Bryant - Part One
The coming of the ways - the first of a two-part feature.
Very few people can compare with the songwriting success of Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, the Nashville-based husband and wife team, who in 30 years have provided recording artists with around one quarter of a billion sales. In an exclusive interview with CMP feature writer Alan Cackett, the Bryants tell their story …
When it comes to successful songwriting partnerships, it is usually Lennon & McCartney, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David or Rogers & Hammerstein that first spring to mind. In country music it may well be Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, or even Dallas Frazier and Whitey Shafer, but few think instantly of Boudleuax and Felice Bryant, yet this husband and wife partnership have probably contributed more successful songs to the mainstream of music coming out of Nashville, collectively and/or separately, than any other songwriter or team of songwriters spanning a period of more than 30 years.
They are responsible for such diverse songs as All I Have To Do Is Dream, Rocky Top, Out Behind The Barn, Bird Dog and Raining In My Heart. Not only have the Bryants been highly successful with their songs, but unlike so many songwriting partnerships, very prolific, with close on one thousand songs recorded, and twice as many as that which the public have yet to hear.
Recently I spoke to Boudleaux and Felice by phone. They were in Nashville and it came as quite a surprise to discover that the weather there was the same as in the Weald of Kent—cold, wet and windy. As the phone chat went on and on, I discovered some more surprising things. I guess that should have been expected, as this couple is more than a legend; in Nashville they are an institution.
My interest in songwriters goes back a long way. I can recall the writers of most of the big pop and rock hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some names used to crop up regularly, like John D. Loudermilk, The Burnettes, Lieber and Stoller, and of course The Bryants. But the latter pair always remained something of a mystery to me.
I knew they were prolific. In my own collection I came across more than 200 different songs that they had written, either in partnership or individually (which puts them a long way ahead of everyone else). I also knew that they were married, had their own publishing firm, and lived somewhere in or near Nashville. But through their long career the Bryants have for the most part remained behind the scenes.
That was until last year, when they recorded an album of their own songs. The original plan was to feature new songs, to give artists and producers an idea of what the pair were currently creating, but they were urged to include a few of their classics. The result is a collection of some of their most notable songs blended with some fine new ones, all presented in a very pleasant low-key manner.
The album was critically acclaimed in America, has gained a British release, where reaction was favourable. Felice and Boudleaux are at last stepping out of the shadows into the public eye, which gives me the long-awaited opportunity to fill in the background details of one of the most highly respected and best loved couples in country music.
Boudleaux Bryant was born in Shellman, Georgia, on February 13, 1920. He is part French and Indian and was named after a French soldier who saved his father’s life in the First World War. He was raised in the southern Georgia town of Shellman. His family was quite musical. His father, an attorney, played the fiddle, trombone and piano. His mother was not to be outdone and could play both guitar and mandolin.
Boudleaux studied the violin and piano when only five years old, later graduating to the sousaphone, bass fiddle and guitar. The family travelled extensively during summers and would stop at fairs, gather a crowd by playing various musical pieces which would encompass classical music, traditional country and folk tunes and jazz, then they would pass the hat around.
Upon completing his schooling, Boudleaux moved to the larger city of Atlanta and played for a while in the symphony orchestra. He also played at country hoe-downs, in jazz bands, as a strolling gypsy fiddler and in the studio band for Radio WSB in Atlanta.
His musical influences at the time were wide and varied. “I guess it was just a blending of all kinds of Southern roots,” he explains. “I used to acquire every record I could to learn more about music—swing, jazz, country, hillbilly. I was a great fan of Django Reinhardt, but I would play in country swing bands, and for a time I was a kind of a strolling gypsy fiddler and, I can tell you, that was the hardest work I ever did!”
The general opinion is that the Bryants didn’t start songwriting professionally until the mid–1940s, but I discovered, quite by accident, that Boudleaux had some of his compositions recorded by the Pine Ridge Boys in 1938–39 for the RCA Victor company.
“How the devil did you know that?” Boudleaux exclaimed when I asked him about it.
“Nobody, just nobody knows that I wrote those things. Let me see, yes, I was playing fiddle, Texas western swing style with Hank Penny and the Radio Cowboys in Atlanta. Gosh, that does take me back. And we used to do some things which I had written, and that’s how the Pine Ridge Boys came to record some of my tunes. They heard them and liked them enough to record them. I think one of those things might have been titled Tobacco Road Swing.”
I asked Boudleaux if he has been on any of the Pine Ridge Boys records.
“No. I never got round to making any records in those days, though we were on the radio working on WSB in Atlanta and a little later I was working in the WMC studio band in Memphis. Things were certainly different in those days, we used to play little backwoods places, but it sure was fun.” “I was always composing little melodies for as long as I can remember,” he recalled. “It was just something that came naturally to me. Before the advent of television, or very much radio even, people had to entertain themselves and what came to be developed into ‘country music’ really started out of this amateur front-porch, home-style performance. That’s all it amounted to at that time. Nobody had written any so-called country songs. Anybody who wrote songs, wrote songs! So I didn’t consider myself a country songwriter. I was just composing little melodies for my own amusement, whether they were jazz-influenced, country-styled or classical. I wouldn’t know. To me it was just music.”
Throughout the early 1940s Boudleaux was continually on the road, working as a travelling musician with various bands, playing whatever music the public might want to hear. During an engagement in Milwaukee, at the Sherwood Hotel, Boudleaux met a vivacious and exuberant Italian girl. As the story goes, a pretty, dark-eyed elevator attendant with long black hair saw him as he stepped on to the lift and immediately recognised him as the subject of her dreams.
Felice, the lady in question, takes up the story. “When I was eight years old, I dreamt of this man. He and I were dancing to ‘our song’, and I remembered this man’s face. So when I saw Boudleaux I recognised him! I don’t know if you can call it love at first sight or ‘My god, you friend, I was wondering when you’d come along.’ But I just clung on to him. He didn’t know who the hell I was, but somehow I knew who he was.”
Felice was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 7, 1925. She came from a family just as musical as Boudleaux’s, except they played by ear and the melody was folk Italian style. A three-month courtship followed and in the summer of 1945 they were married. Boudleaux and Felice had both been writing a little without each other knowing what the other had been up to. Boudleaux had continued to compose his little melodies and while he worked odd jobs and played one-nighters, Felice wrote lyric poems to escape the boredom of being alone.
“Boudleaux was away much of the time,” recalled Felice. “I’d see him just enough to say ‘Good morning. Here’s your coffee’ and ‘Better eat, your supper’s getting’ cold.’ We had this tiny three-bedroomed apartment and I would clean all day. What do you do when you’ve got the cleanest house in town? You write songs. That’s what! I don’t know how we ever managed to have Dane and Del, our two sons, because Boudleaux was never home.”
When they finally did get together as songwriters, Boudleaux on the melody and Felice on the lyrics, they would often work all night on the tunes. Boudleaux had managed to secure a steady engagement in Georgia, near Moultrie, which gave the couple more time together.
“During that period we had a lot of free time and started writing a lot of songs,” explained Boudleaux. “We made up a portfolio of the work and started looking around for a publisher. We looked through issues of Billboard to find names of music producers and would write dozens of letters every week. This went on for months before anything happened.”
“We finally got a letter of interest from Arthur Godfrey for some songs, especially one called Country Boy. But he was not quick enough. A friend had introduced us to Fred Rose, a publisher who was just setting things up in Nashville. He listened to Country Boy and got Jimmy Dickens to do it in 1947. That was our first hit. Then Fred Rose got me a job as a songplugger in Nashville for Nat Tannen of New York.”
During the late 1940s, New York’s writers of pop tunes were looking in envy at the ‘country’ songsmiths who were beginning to outsmart the city slickers. There was a revolution brewing in the music business. It forced many of Tin Pan Alley’s prolific composers out of the Brill Building’s cubicles to music libraries, where they would startle attendants by demanding: ‘Where do I find folk songs?’
Behind all of this was the public’s sudden demand for folk-type music. Which is precisely the type of melody that Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths had never previously been able to provide. Traditionally slanted songs like Tennessee Waltz, Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes, You Are My Sunshine and Mockin’ Bird Hill were sweeping America, and these songs were being written by simple country musicians who could make use of their own environment and turn out effective songs with a very wide appeal.
The New York writers could never match the work of Hank Williams, Pee Wee King, Jimmie Davis or Jenny Lou Carson, so astute New York publishers like Nat Tannen set up offices or writers like Boudleaux and Felice Bryant in Nashville to either write the songs or seek out the songs from other writers for the popular singers based in New York to record.
Melodically, the country song is relatively uncomplicated. Its refrain is simple and easily remembered, its rhythm is insistently enunciated by assorted bass fiddles, stamping feet and guitars. The words of a country song tell a story or depict a situation in the most unabashed, earthy and therefore insidiously captivating terms.
A fresh and genuine strain in country music was found in songs like Country Boy, Out Behind The Barn, It’s A Lovely, Lovely World and We Could, which were beginning to flow from the Bryants.
“We don’t write according to formula,” explained Boudleaux. “When the boys were kids we’d put them to bed and write all night. Now we work every day—in between phone calls—and when we get a group of tunes together we pass them on to producers and artists. We get rejections, but it only bothers us when we thought the song was ideal for that person. You just work on it a bit more.”
Working for a music publisher and writing songs meant that Boudleaux had to give up playing for a living and to begin with it was quite a financial strain.
“Boudleaux was clearing anything from sixty dollars a night with his regular work of playing and when he stopped that to go to for 35 dollars a week everybody thought we were crazy,” said Felice, “but we saw the far vision.”
“During that time we got things that we wrote cut like Hey Joe by Carl Smith and several others,” Boudleaux added.
The financial gamble certainly paid off, Felice and Boudleaux rapidly becoming a Nashville song factory and their 'far vision’ placed them in the midst of being in the right place at the right time. They signed an exclusive songwriters contract with Acuff-Rose Publishing and due to Boudleaux understanding law and legal contracts (picked up from his father, who had been a attorney) they were able to arrange a rider to their contract which stipulated their copyrights would revert back to them after ten years.
During the early 1950s they were undoubtedly the most successful songwriters in country music. Carl Smith enjoyed a run of hit singles with songs like This Orchid Means Goodbye, Our Honeymoon, Just Wait Till I Get You Alone, Back Up Buddy, It’s A Lovely, Lovely World, and of course Hey Joe, which also became a pop hit through Frankie Laine’s cover version. Smith also filled his albums with the Bryants’ songs like Lovin’ Is Livin’ and Oh No!
Other top names of the period also scored on the charts with Bryant-penned songs—I’ve Been Thinking and The Richest Man (Eddy Arnold); Somebody’s Stolen My Honey (Ernest Tubb); Midnight (Red Foley) and I’d Rather Stay At Home (Kitty Wells). It was a period of great activity for Boudleaux and Felice, and as their songs became more successful they were able to experiment more in their writing, coming up with new and fresh ideas whilst still retaining that basic country realism and simplicity.
Their songs had a sophistication that belies the image of a country songwriter scribbling his songs on an old cigarette packet, because they were mixing intricate chord structures with keen lyrical perception into songs that are telling, poignant and at times nostalgic for a life and time gone by. Though there is no hidden formula to the songs that Boudleaux and Felice were writing, most were steeped in country tradition as Boudleaux says: “When you have lyrics like ‘shore as shootin’’ and ‘so dad burned high falootin’’ you are in a country vein. It’s possible for country and pop to adapt by reworking the arrangement and changing the make-up of the band, but basically a country song is full of tradition.”
“Everybody now thinks country is fashionable and it’s helped Nashville to be known as a country music centre,” he continues, “but when we started out there wasn’t any designation ‘country music.’ There wasn’t any literature on country music. So what we were writing was what came naturally to us, and it must have been right because the people accepted it.”
In the early 1950s Boudleaux also turned his attention to a recording career. It was not a successful venture and I got the impression that it was something he would rather try and forget.
“Yes, I did make some records around 20 years ago,” he replied when I asked about his recording career. “ I don’t even remember the songs. They certainly didn’t amount to much, so I turned to what I do best—songwriting.”
In fact Boudleaux had some singles released by Hickory Records, a label created as a record outlet by the immensely successful Acuff-Rose Publications. The label started at the beginning of 1954 and Boudleaux had his first record, My Baby’s Gone coupled with I Wanna Go First released in the summer of that year under the name of Blood Bryant.
He had to wait another five years before a ‘follow-up’ single was released, this coupled Hot Spot with Blue Kazoo and was just about as successful as his debut. But the lack of success of his record was no great worry to Boudleaux.
He and Felice were highly successful songwriters in Nashville with artists literally begging them to write a hit song for them. But apart from isolated instances, most of their songs had really only been hits on the country market. Their reputation in the South was well established, but they were still looking for success in the pop market, It was a young singing duo from Brownie, Kentucky—Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers—who were to team up with the Bryants’ songs and change the course of country music and influence a whole generation of record buyers.
To be continued in the March issue.