American Icons: Felice & Boudleaux Bryant

AmericanIcons_F & B Bryant-1

If the test of a great song is how good it sounds as recorded in several styles by many different artists, the song “Love Hurts” is an undeniable classic. Whether performed in dramatic rock-operatic style by Roy Orbison, in a heartbreak duet by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, or as a heavy-metal anthem by Nazareth, the greatness of which transcends any single genre. Written by the legendary husband-wife songwriting teams of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, it’s but one of countless country standards they wrote, many of which became pop and rock hits as well, including “Rocky Top” (first recorded by the Osborne Brothers), “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Suzie,” “Devoted To You” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” (all recorded by the Everly Brothers), and many others. With more than 800 published songs, it’s been estimated that their songs have sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide.

Boudleaux, born in 1920 in Georgia, started his musical career as a classical violinist but found he enjoyed country fiddling a whole lot more, and moved from his job with the Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra to a country swing band. It was in 1945 that he met Felice, some five years younger than him. Born Matilda Genevieve Scaduto to an Italian family in Milwaukee, she was renamed Felice by Boudleaux, who met her in a Milwaukee hotel where he was performing. Though she enjoyed singing, she loved writing poetry more, and her way with words combined with Boudleaux’s gift for music resulted in one of the greatest songwriting teams America has known. They were married soon after meeting and stayed together all their lives.

Their success, however, was far from swift. Years passed as they lived in a mobile home, Felice writing lyrics while her husband was out on the road playing country gigs. When he’d come home, they’d write music to the words she crafted, and soon accumulated a vast catalog of originals. They tried and failed for a few years to get a country artist to record one of their gems, mailing out about 20 songs a day to various artists. In 1948, their luck shifted; Little Jimmy Dickens recorded “Country Boy,” which went to No. 7 on the country charts. It garnered the attention of the publisher Fred Rose, who invited them to relocate to Nashville, which they did in 1950.

Their career simmered slowly at first, with cuts by Carl Smith as well as four singles they recorded themselves. But in 1957, they wrote a string of hit singles for the Everly Brothers, and their place on the country-pop songwriting stage was forever fixed. “Bye Bye Love,” for example, later famously recorded by Everly Brothers acolytes Simon & Garfunkel, resounded like a classic from the first note, containing as much country soul as a Hank Williams ballad while having the rock and roll spirit of Buddy Holly. In fact Holly, who rarely recorded anyone else’s material, recorded a fine version of their “Raining in My Heart.” The Bryants became known as the songwriter’s songwriters—in that their fellow songwriters were in awe of the timelessly succinct soul instilled in all their songs, and many of them recorded Bryant songs, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Roy Orbison and Gram Parsons. Their music crossed generations, genres and even race barriers when Leona Douglas, the first black artist ever to record a country song, had a 1962 hit with their song “Too Many Chicks.” Soon everyone wanted to record one of their remarkable songs, such as Tony Bennett, Sonny James, Charley Pride, Sarah Vaughan, Dean Martin, Ray Charles and even the Grateful Dead and Cher.

In 1978, the Bryants moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for good, a place they had loved since 1967, when they were in town writing songs at the Gatlinburg Inn. Working on a chain of slow ballads for Archie Campbell, they hit a dry patch, so Felice suggested they brighten their spirits by writing something up-tempo. As Felice remembered in 1992, Boudleaux was frustrated and “grabbed the guitar and gave it a real strong strum and said, ‘How’s this?’ And then he breaks into [the] “Rocky Top” melody. I said ‘You know, that sounds pretty good.’ He said, ‘And what do you think we ought to call it?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ He said, ‘How about “Rocky Top”?’ I said, ‘That’s pretty.’” In just over 15 minutes, the classic was complete, an up song about a sad subject, the way urbanity was encroaching on the simple beauty of the Tennessee hills. It became one of their most famous and beloved songs, first recorded by the Osbornes in the late 1960s, but truly taking off when Lynn Anderson’s version of it became a country hit in 1970, leading the state of Tennessee to adopt it as their official state song.

They kept writing as long as they could, up to 1987 when Boudleaux died. Felice followed him in 2003; both are buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Nashville. Asked what made the Bryants special, Phil Everly said, “[They] had the far-reaching thought process that goes behind writing. It would be inner-soul searching and stuff. As silly as it sounds and as trite as it sounds, there’s still a little piece of everybody’s heart in it—some little twist, some little phrase in `All I Have To Do Is Dream.’ They influenced everyone they met.”