When I first heard that the great filmmaker Ken Burns had done a documentary on country music, I wasn’t particularly enthused. There are some country (and country-rock) songs I like but overall I am not a huge fan. I decided to give it a shot anyway and boy am I glad I did.
I’m somewhat of an amateur historian of music anyway and this was a history lesson and a half. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. And let us not forget that “hillbilly” music intersected with blues and became rockabilly. Last time I checked you could still see the whole series at least here in the States on PBS online.
In many ways, the series did less of an introduction of new people to me and more fleshing out of people I’d heard of. For example, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. I will quote here from the Performing Songwriter blog:
In the spring of 1945, 19-year-old Matilda Genevieve Scaduto was working as an elevator operator at the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee. One afternoon, she struck up a conversation with one of the guests, a musician from Georgia with the poetic name of Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant. Five days later, Matilda (Felice was Boudleaux’s pet name for her) and Boudleaux ran off together and one of the great songwriting partnerships was born.
Over the next 30 years, the couple would write nearly 6,000 songs together, selling over 200 million records with artists such as Roy Orbison, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Buddy Holly, Eddy Arnold, Bobbie Gentry, Gram Parsons, Simon & Garfunkel and most memorably, the Everly Brothers. The Bryants’ list of classics includes “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,*” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Love Hurts” and “Rocky Top.”
“Their stuff fit us like a glove because it was designed to fit,” said Don Everly. “Boudleaux would sit down and talk with us. A lot of his songs were written because he was getting inside our heads—trying to find out where we were going, what we wanted, what words were right.”
“They were masters,” added Phil Everly. “Anybody would be a fool not to watch how they did it. That’s the level that you wanted to be at. I learned more from them than from anybody.”
Roy Orbison actually had the first hit with “Love Hurts” and you should check that one out too. But I’ll go with the Everlys here since their version is nice and they’re so linked in with the Bryants:
Per Wikipedia, “They tried to sell their compositions to a number of country music artists but were either ignored or rejected until Little Jimmy Dickens recorded their song “Country Boy.” It went to #7 on the country charts in 1948 and opened the door to a working relationship with Fred Rose at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville, Tennessee.”
So given that their first hit was a country tune, for the second version, I nominate the one from Gram Parsons’ second and final solo album, Grievous Angel. The album was released posthumously in early 1974, four months after his death from a drug overdose.
Parsons is not only a key figure in country-rock history, but he is also the guy who was a key player (per Burns’ documentary) in converting Emmylou Harris from a folkie to a country gal. Here is their duet:
And so inevitably, we come to the version that I bet a lot of you thought was an original. I know I did. Despite my predilection for early rockers I’d never heard the Everlys version, never heard Roy Orbison’s. I’d never heard of it before the Scottish band Nazareth did it.
Per Wikipedia, “The Nazareth version is the most popular version of the song and the only rendition to become a hit single in the United States, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1976. Nazareth’s version was an international hit, peaking at No. 1 in Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, and Norway.” (Jim Capaldi of Traffic had a hit with it in the UK as well.)
Nazareth is a hard rock band and so theirs is performed more like a heavy power ballad. It comes from the album Hair of the Dog whose title song is a great bit of ballsy rock (later covered by Guns ‘N Roses):
Per Performing Songwriter, Felice and Boudleux’s chart run continued from the ’60s through the ’80s with hits by Charley Pride, Glen Campbell, Joe Stampley, and Moe Bandy. By the time Boudleaux passed away in 1987, they’d had over 1,500 recordings of their songs.
Felice continued to collaborate with various writers, and at the time of her death in 2003, was working on a one-woman play. The pair were inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
*Boudleaux wrote “All I Have To Do is Dream” for Felice who says she dreamed of him before meeting him. Now *that’s* romantic.