Billy Ray Cyrus, Bobby Osborne, Ronnie Dunn, Gail Davies, Alison Krauss, Jason Isbell, Old Crow Medicine Show and Dennis Quaid were among those attending a special gala (Sept. 26) to celebrate “We Could: The Songwriting Artistry of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant.” The new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit honors the husband-and-wife duo that brought the world such legendary songs as the Everly Brothers’ classic “All I Have to Do is Dream,” Nazareth’s hit “Love Hurts” and “Rocky Top,” one of Tennessee’s state songs.
The Bryant family, including sons Dane and Del, was at the event and were moved by the standing room only crowd gathered for the occasion. “A lot of them came out for my brother and myself, and for my folks. The Ken Burns documentary has really put mom and dad front and center this week,” Del Bryant tells Sounds Like Nashville, referencing the documentary airing on PBS.
Born in Shellman, Georgia in 1920, Boudleaux was a classically trained violinist who met the love of his life, Matilda Scaduto (whom he called Felice) in her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the two eloped just days later. The couple is known as the first people to move to Nashville specifically to pursue a career as songwriters. They arrived in 1950 and their first taste of success came when Little Jimmy Dickens recorded their song “Country Boy.” In the years that followed, the couple became famous as they penned songs for artists in nearly every musical genre. Bryant songs have been recorded by Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Simon & Garfunkel, The Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, Ray Charles, Joan Jett, Bob Dylan and many others. Boudleaux passed in 1987 and Felice died in 2003, but their songs have continued to be recorded and impact culture.
During the festivities at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Christopher “Critter” Fuqua performed “Country Boy.” Krauss and Isbell dueted on the classic “Love Hurts,” which has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, most notably by Scottish hard rockers Nazareth. Osborne had the crowd on its feet with a spirited version of “Rocky Top.” Felice and Boudleaux wrote the song in 1967 and The Osbornes were the first of many to record the song, making it a hit later that year.
The exhibit includes 16 ledgers with the original handwritten lyrics and music for most of their songs. “The ledgers are the holy grails,” Del Bryant says. “They’re ground zero in my family. They always have been. They never left the house. People came to the house to hear songs. They were too valuable, not in terms of money, but that was their tool. That’s where the songs were. There wasn’t a computer back then that you had everything in that you could back up. They had to keep those safe so they were always at home. People came to hear them pitch songs and to eat that pasta.”
Felice was famous for her pasta sauce, which Del says the chef at the Country Music Hall of Fame recreated to be served during the star-studded reception. When the Bryants had people over to feed them dinner and pitch their songs, they jokingly referred to it as “the pasta scam.” The recipe for that famous pasta sauce is just one of the personal mementos on display in the exhibit. It also features sweaters worn by Don and Phil Everly as well as a beautiful satin and lace dress worn by Felice when the couple attended the BMI Awards in New York in the 1950s where they received awards for writing the Everly Brothers’ hits “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love.” Del recalls his father was shocked to learn the dress cost $500, but admitted his wife looked radiant in it.
The exhibit also includes copies of the weathered thesaurus, rhyming dictionary and book of synonyms the couple used while writing songs as well as Felice’s childhood prayer book, a pair of maracas and the 1961 Martin guitar Boudleaux used when they wrote “Rocky Top.”
Del, an executive with BMI for 42 years until his retirement, and Dane, a successful Nashville realtor, are proud that the exhibit is named after “We Could,” a song Felice wrote by herself as a birthday gift for Boudleaux. “Mother was a pretty strong woman for the 40s, 50s and 60s,” Del says. “A lot of people doubted her involvement and they didn’t understand it. A lot of people didn’t give her the due that was due, but my dad did. He knew the contribution and wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t for her. He always acknowledged that.”
During the event, Del and Dane announced they were donating the entire Bryant collection to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Del said both the Smithsonian and the University of Tennessee (where “Rocky Top” is the fight song) wanted the collection, but they chose the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The Bryants had moved to Gatlinburg, TN in 1978 and Del revealed their parents’ home was nearly destroyed in the fire that swept the East Tennessee city in 2016. They got a call from their assistant asking what she should try to save before she was ordered to evacuate. “It was days before we knew if the house was still standing,” Del says. “The roof melted, but the house didn’t burn.”
Bryant says that was a wake up call to have their parents’ memorabilia moved to a safe, secure place. The family is thrilled that future generations of songwriters and country music lovers will be able to learn about his parents’ lives and work through the new exhibit, but the mission to educate the public doesn’t just stop there. Del says there are plans in the works to honor what would have been Boudleaux’s 100th birthday on Feb. 13, 2020. That date also marks the 75 anniversary of the date the couple met. Those details are still in the works.
In the meantime, fans can check out the Bryant’s legacy as “We Could: The Songwriting Artistry of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant” runs through Aug. 2, 2020. “What I like about the display, and what it really demonstrates, is how hard they worked,” Del says. “They wrote thousands and thousands of songs to get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs cut. They approached it as a job. Mother used to say, ‘Boudleaux and I, we’re a factory!’ I want people to not just think they were two inspired people who songs just fell into. They worked hard at it. This exhibition shows that and I love the interactivity of it. You can hear their demos. You can hear Ray Charles sing a song, or the Everlys or Kitty Wells or Tex Ritter. You can hear how many pairs of pants you can out on a good song or how many shirts you can put on a good song or how many coats you can dress it up with. It’s putting them front and center and the fact that they were the first professional, full-time songwriters in Nashville. They really blazed a trail. This acknowledges it, shows it, proves it and sanctifies it.”