Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie "Prince" Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) released What the Brothers Sang this week, their album of songs initially recorded in the '50s and '60s by the Everly Brothers. It mostly sticks to the lesser-known parts of their discography, album tracks and B-sides -- "Devoted to You" is the only major Everly Brothers hit they cover. Here's a "making-of" video they released a couple of weeks ago.
"Devoted to You" is one of the many, many songs the brothers sang by their best-remembered songwriters: Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, a husband-and-wife team who supposedly wrote something like 6000 songs together between the time they met in 1945 (at a hotel in Milwaukee, where Felice -- then Matilda Scaduto--was working as an elevator operator and Boudleaux was performing as a fiddler in a band; they eloped five days later) and Boudleaux's death in 1987. They started out in country music, but more than a few of their songs went on to become pop standards. The Bryants' first hit as songwriters was Little Jimmy Dickens' novelty song "Country Boy," in 1949. It's stayed in Dickens' repertoire ever since; here he is playing it on TV a decade or so later.
For the most part, Felice wrote the words and Boudleaux the music, although they also worked with other songwriters. The Bryants briefly tried to break through as performers, too; in 1951, they recorded a handful of duets as "Bud & Felice Bryant," "Bud & Betty Bryant" and "Bood & Fileece Bryant." They failed to take off. By then, though, they were sustaining themselves in the Nashville songwriting business. One of Boudleaux's early solo successes was #1 on the country charts for eight weeks in 1953: Carl Smith's "Hey, Joe!" (No, it's not the same song as Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe.")
Their real breakthrough, though, was also the Everly Brothers' first hit: "Bye Bye Love," a 1957 gold record that the Everlys supposedly picked up on after 30 other artists had rejected it. It's a model of the Bryants' songwriting style: in Felice's phrase, "basic black with a string of pearls." That year, 18-year-old Phil Everly and 20-year-old Don Everly naturally made it the centerpiece of their live and TV appearances -- at least until the Bryants' follow-up "Wake Up Little Susie" was another gigantic hit for them.
For a while after that, the Bryants' work was a major part of the Everlys' repertoire. The biggest Everlys-sing-Bryants hit was probably "All I Have to Do Is Dream," in 1958 -- for a week that June, it was simultaneously #1 on Billboard's pop, country and R&B charts. Since then, it's been an all-but-obligatory song for duets: over the years, it's been recorded by duos including Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello, Andy Gibb and Victoria Principle, and ... Linda Ronstadt and Kermit the Frog.
Boudleaux Bryant's song "Love Hurts" was an album track for the Everlys in 1961, but not a hit for them. Subsequently, though, it's been covered dozens of times, by artists including Jenny Lewis, Gram Parsons, Joan Jett, and Robert Pollard with Kim Deal. The biggest hit version, though, was Nazareth's 1975 recording, which turned it into a lighter-waving hard rock ballad. Hair-metal starts right here.
"Rocky Top" supposedly took the Bryants roughly 10 minutes to write one day in 1967; it's now one of Tennessee's (eight) official state songs. (Fun fact: there is no such place as Rocky Top, Tennessee.) There's not quite a signature version of "Rocky Top," Lynn Anderson's version, below, was the biggest hit, going to #17 on the country charts in 1970--but it's become a standard that every bluegrass picker needs to learn or risk a bottle to the head.
Felice Bryant didn't write a lot of songs on her own -- she didn't read music or play any instruments. She wrote "We Could" as a birthday present for Boudleaux, though, and it became a hit for Charley Pride in 1974.
McCarthy and Oldham are far from the first artists to pick over the cobwebbed corners of the Everly Brothers catalogue in search of great songs. The Beatles had the Bryants' "So How Come No One Loves Me" in their repertoire in their early days (they recorded it for the BBC at one point), and in 1968, Fairport Convention recorded a lovely version of the Everlys' 1960 album track "Some Sweet Day."
As for "Devoted to You," that too was an obscurity, but not for long. It first appeared as the B-side of the Everly Brothers' "Bird Dog" single (written by Boudleaux on his own), but quickly became a substantial hit on its own, and it's probably better-remembered than "Bird Dog" itself now. It's easy to hear what Oldham and McCarthy heard in it: absolutely gorgeous, utterly simple craftsmanship, a frame to make even unconventional voices sound beautiful together.