Book Sheds Light on Lives of Songwriting Duo Behind Early Hits
One of the most persistent conversations in country music — well, in almost any musical style, though the questions might differ in degree and not kind — these days focuses on authenticity. Is Florida Georgia Line’s music real country music? Luke Bryan’s or Jason Aldean’s music: Is it authentic country music? Can any country artist who blends rap into his songs be singing real country music? What would Hank Williams and Kitty Wells think, ask the defenders of real, authentic country music. Fans of contemporary country music might counter by pointing out that even though most of these artists hail not from the country but from urban areas, they still sing about the themes of classic country music — tears in beers, broken hearts and broken homes, momma, pickup trucks, and trains (though, when’s the last time you heard a train song on contemporary country radio?).
Vince Gill once told me that “there’s never been a golden era of country music; every year, every decade it has changed; country music does what it does, and great stuff floats through like it does in every era. Ashley Monroe has a killer voice and killer songs. Cam has a great voice, and Charlie Worsham is trying to get that big lick. Chris Stapleton, he’s like Ray Charles; he’s undeniable.” Like any musical style, country music grows dynamically, never letting the dust settle on the skeletons one generation leaves behind as the next generation evolves and adapts to the culture it inhabits.
Almost 50 years ago (in the November 9, 1959, issue of Music Vendor), Boudleaux Bryant, who with his wife, Felice, made up one of country and pop music’s most famous writing teams, reflected on country music: “Country music has jumped its boundaries and is exerting a powerful influence on every other popular music idiom. Conversely, rhythm and blues, pop, and rock and roll have had their impact on country music. The country boy now digs the big beat and there is now room in his ear for a bigger variety of instrumental and vocal sounds, plus other innovations including a slightly more complicated chord structure.” This from the man who wrote, or co-wrote with Felice, songs including “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bye, Bye, Love,” “Wake Up, Little Susie,” “Devoted to You,” “Take a Message to Mary,” and “Love Hurts.” A quick glimpse at the list of singers who have recorded the Bryants’ songs reveals a gathering of the royalty of country, pop, and rock music: Kitty Wells, Eddy Arnold, George Jones, Ricky Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Nazareth, Simon and Garfunkel, and Donnie Osmond, among many others.
Twenty years later, in 1974, as a part of the “Lyrics and Lyricists Series” at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Bryant reflected on the authenticity of country music in terms that today we associate with the perplexity about the meaning of Americana music: “I don’t exactly know what it is myself. I don’t feel bad about that because I don’t think anybody else does either. In fact, as a clear-cut, culturally confined, or definable phenomenon, it just doesn’t exist. The word ‘country,’ as applied to music, is roughly on the same level as the words ‘home cooking’ on a sign. I’ve heard it said that country songs are more sincere or honest. They do generally speak to subject matters of gut interest, such as love, hate, loneliness, happiness, food, booze, living, dying, and so on—but then, so do most other songs.”
Bryant’s reflections can be found in a lavishly illustrated new biography of the Bryants, the most famous songwriters whose songs you’ve heard a million times but whose names, these days at least, might not roll right off your tongue. Nashville author Lee Wilson gathers anecdotes from the Bryants’ family and friends and musical associates, as well as their reflections about songwriting, music, and life, folding all of that material into the couple’s life story in her warm and admiring book, All I Have to Do Is Dream: The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant Story (Two Creeks Press). She traces the lives of each from childhood and youth to their first meeting in a hotel in Milwaukee, their elopement, their early struggles as songwriters, and their eventual success and rise to the top as two of Nashville’s most respected and sought-after songwriters.
Born in Georgia into a musical family, Boudleaux got a violin for his fifth birthday and by the time he graduated from high school he was playing with the stringband Uncle Ned and His Texas Wranglers, and then with Hank Penny and His Radio Cowboys, and on the WSB Barn Dance. Born in Milwaukee, Felice was a natural actor; as a young child she “single-handedly re-enacted for neighborhood kids the musicals she saw, taking all the parts and singing them herself.” She loved music and words — she read and re-read The Best Loved Poems of the American People — and Wilson points out that Felice’s love of poetry gave her a familiarity with melody and rhythm that she brought to her own writing. The couple met in a hotel lobby in Milwaukee, eloped, and were officially married in Covington, Kentucky. They moved to Moultrie, Georgia, where they parked their trailer on Boudleaux’s parents’ farm, and eventually started writing songs together. As Wilson points out: “Felice could compose lyrics and could come up with melodies, but she couldn’t write them down. Boudleaux could preserve Felice’s melodies on paper as well as compose his own, and he found that her ideas sparked his own creativity.”
The Bryants’ life as songwriters took off after Little Jimmy Dickens turned their song “Country Boy” into a hit. Wilson chronicles their close friendship with Nashville’s premier A&R man, Fred Rose, who eventually became their publisher. Chet Atkins, who also became a close friend and musical associate, acknowledged the powerful influence of their writing: “Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were two of the early great songrwriters to migrate to Nashville. They showed a lot of people the way. Many of their songs, recorded by the Everly Brothers, greatly influenced the Beatles, who, in turn, influenced the whole world of music. The Bryants changed the direction of music all over the world through their songs for the Everly Brothers.”
Although the Bryants’ story has its entertaining moments, All I Have to Do Is Dream is even more valuable as a glimpse into the work of a songwriter. Any songwriter ready to pack up and move to Nashville in pursuit of a hit record or writing for Reba needs to read this book. Even Boudleaux, who wrote or helped write well over 100 hits songs, once said quite candidly: “I don’t know what makes a successful song. To carry that further, I would also say that nobody else knows … The answer is somewhere beyond our ken, residing in that which is just outside reach of our normal senses, reposing in a benevolent providence, a bubble of luck, a good karma, or — well, your guess is as good as mine or anybody else’s.”
One of his tongue-in-cheek reflections contains advice that those seeking to stake their claim in a town now overrun with hopeful songwriters might post on a wall near their writing desk: “Unless you feel driven to compose and have all the instincts of a riverboat gambler, you should never seek songwriting as a profession. Unless you know in your heart that you’re great, feel in your bones that you’re lucky, and think in your soul that God just might let you get away with it, pick something more certain than composing, like chasing the white whale or eradicating the common housefly. We didn’t have the benefit such sage advice. Now it’s too late to back up. We made it. Sometimes it pays to be ignorant.”
Since this is the only biography of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, All I Have to Do Is Dream offers a detailed sketch of the couple’s life, but as enjoyable as it is to read about their lives, it’s even more instructive to learn about the challenges and rewards of songwriting from a pair of writers whose words and music continue to influence all styles of music.