They’re the greatest songwriters you've probably never heard of, but the songs that Boudleaux and Felice Bryant wrote might be part of the soundtrack of your life: “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bye, Bye, Love,” “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “Devoted to You,” all made famous by the Everly Brothers in the late 1950s. Fans of the University of Tennessee also sing one of the Bryants’ songs—“Rocky Top”—many times every game day, and the rousing tune is now the Tennessee state song. Just a 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.
In the lovingly crafted All I Have to Do Is Dream: The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant Story, Lee Wilson (daughter-in-law of her subjects) offers a tender and passionate portrait of the Bryants, who were among Nashville’s first professional songwriters. Drawing on interviews, anecdotes and archives, Wilson provides both a fan’s appreciation and what appears to be the first biography of the couple. She traces the lives of Boudleaux and Felice 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 to a musical family, Boudleaux (named for a French soldier who saved his father's life in World War I) got a violin for his fifth birthday and by the time he graduated from high school he was playing with the string band Uncle Ned and His Texas Wranglers, and then with Hank Penny and His Radio Cowboys, and on the WSB Barn Dance. Felice was a native of Milwaukee and 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 writing. After eloping, the couple 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.”
Little Jimmy Dickens took the Bryants’ song, “Country Boy,” and turned into a hit, and the Bryants never looked back. They worked very early with Nashville’s premier A&R man, Fred Rose (who wrote songs for Hank Williams, among others), who was at MGM at the time and who became their publisher. They eventually moved to Nashville and parked their trailer in Hillbilly Heaven—the Rainbow Trailer Court—whose previous residents included country singers Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold and Cowboy Copas, among others. They lived just down the road from Chet Atkins, who said that the “Bryants changed the direction of music all over the world through their songs for the Everly Brothers.” In those early days, Boudleaux kept songs written on scraps of paper in his pockets; when he lost a coat whose pockets were filed with such scraps, Atkins suggested that the couple use accounting ledgers in which to write songs, and that became their method.
Among the best features of the book are the anecdotes from the couple that Wilson shares in sidebars. For example, Boudleaux on what makes a successful song: “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.”
Boudleaux also reflected on making songwriting a career (and the hundreds of aspiring songwriters flocking to Nashville daily would do well to pay attention): “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 of such sage advice. Now it’s too late to back up. We made it. Sometimes it pays to be ignorant.”
Wilson’s lavishly illustrated and fondly admiring biography provides a much-needed look at the lives and craft of two songwriters whose work should be even better known.