Interview: Louisiana legend Tommy McLain on making Swamp pop-u-lar again after 40 years

The English influence on “I Ran Down Every Dream” may surprise some listeners.

Sometimes it can seem that the term legendary is applied to any musician who has managed to maintain a lifelong career when in truth, there are very few musicians who can be said to be truly legendary based on their artistic achievements, and their subsequent influence on other musicians. Swamp pop’s Tommy McLain is unequivocally one of rock ‘n roll’s legendary artists with a career beginning in the ‘60s when he toured with the likes of the Yardbirds, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding, and subsequently influencing artists such as Tony Joe White, John Fogerty, and Little Feat. He was also one of the main artists featured on Charlie Gillett’s compilation ‘Another Saturday Night’ that helped bring the music of Louisiana, and swamp pop in particular, to a new UK audience in the ‘70s. While Tommy McLain has continued to work since the ‘60s, ‘I Ran Down Every Dream’ is his first new record in forty years, and it not only celebrates swamp pop and points to a new future, but maintains the close links between the UK and Louisiana music by featuring cross-generational UK artists such as Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Jon Cleary, Louis Eliot who helped write the love letter to London ‘London Too’, and Ed Harcourt. Featured American musicians include the also truly legendary Van Dyke Parks and sometime keyboardist to Keith Richards, Ivan Neville, as well Tex-Mex royalty Augie Meyers, and fellow swamp pop icon Warren Storm, and it is produced by leading modern-day Louisiana musician C.C Adcock. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Tommy McLain with producer C.C. Adcock, who used to be McLain’s protégé, to discuss all things swamp pop and ‘I Ran Down Every Dream’. A close friend of Tommy McLain was Bobby Charles, and McLain reminisces about their friendship and why he has finally recorded a song Bobby Charles gave him. Tommy McLain may be a legend but it is also very clear that he knows how to enjoy himself and brings this joy to his music. While Tommy McLain maybe Louisiana royalty, C.C. Adcock lets slip that there is a possibility he may also become something approaching British royalty. 

How are you?

Tommy McLain (TM): I’m good man, back home in Louisiana for a little while.

I’ve heard you are working pretty hard at the moment.

TM: It is rock’n’roll. 

Americana UK has a Cajun & Zydeco Top 10 and Swamp Pop Top Ten which continue to be popular month on month.

TM: I like swamp pop, and they play a lot of zydeco here in Louisiana. What C.C. Adcock and I want to do with this new album is make swamp pop-u-lar, haha. We work all the time here in Louisiana, but C.C. Adcock and I have been on the road with Yep Roc Records which is very good for us.

‘I Ran Down Every Dream’ may be your first album in 40 years, but you have never stopped working in music, have you?

TM: That is right, I have never done anything else, haha, all I’ve done is sing and play the guitar.

And write songs.

TM: That’s right, I just love it, it keeps me feeling young.

 Why is your 1966 version of ‘Sweet Dreams’ so iconic?

TM: I heard Patsy Cline singing that in ’64 or ’65, and I knew I could do that for my crowds when I was playing the clubs and dancehalls. So I started doing it my way, and when I recorded it, it went vroom, and we had a huge record very quickly.

The echo is still there, people still talk about it after all these years.

TM: Yeah, I still get some royalties for ‘Sweet Dreams’ and it lingered for a long time in the Hot 100 here in Billboard and Cashbox, and the radio stations played me for over a year and we became a household name on the radio. You play and then you learn, learning and playing, and the life I lived back then is not the life I live now, I’ve got a little bit more wisdom I’d like to think. I think I’m writing better than I used to write, I’ve got more great friends than I used to have. I don’t know what happen to my friends I used to have before, I think it was probably too much of the hair of the dog that bites you, you know, haha.

 

You have some of your friends on ‘I Ran Down Every Dream’.

TM: The album is hot, a lot of people are playing on it, we are getting rave reviews, and the wonderful Nick Lowe took us out on tour with him, we opened some shows for him up in the North East, and last weekend we were in Chicago and Detroit, Michigan, with him. What a great person he is, and our lives have been turned around, and this album is going to be big I hope, and I’m still praying, haha.

It is certainly making waves, which is quite an achievement after 40 years so you must be very proud of it.

TM: I am proud and happy and I went out with C.C. Adcock, and I call them the younger group and I went with them because down here in Louisiana we play all the time in the casinos here and the money’s good but the pain of it is you get stagnate if you play the same things you played back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I’m a creator, I like to write, to bring swamp pop up a little, bring a little element to it, and make it a bit better, and that is what C.C. Adcock and I tried to do on this album. I tell you what, he put most of the music on there and it has really turned into a whippersnapper, haha.

You are over 80 years old now, how different is your songwriting now compared to when you were younger?

TM: Well, you change, way back I was writing about boyfriends and girlfriends and high school, and as you get older and get married and have a family, and everything comes and everything goes. I may be 82 but I feel like I’m 30, haha. I’m always looking forward to playing another show, writing another song, and my writing has changed with a little bit more depth on the spiritual side than it was before.

I’ve seen some recent publicity shots of you and you were wearing a very impressive pair of white boots, where did you get them from?

TM: Haha, oh man I bought those things online, I’ve got a girlfriend Carol and she ordered that stuff for me and took my measurements. I like the boots and I still like to dress, I became Tommy McLain in the ‘60s and that is when I started growing my hair and my beard. They had a trivia question one time here in America, who started growing their hair first Tommy McLain or Willie Nelson, and I was like no comment I don’t know, haha.

C.C. Adcock (C.C.): I have to tell you this, the other day in the airport somebody came up and asked Tommy for his autograph and he started to shine, and they were like we love ZZ Top please give us an autograph, haha.

That is just brilliant. Again I think I read somewhere that you think of yourself as the Willie Nelson of Louisiana.

TM: Well let’s just say Texas has Willie Nelson and Louisiana has Tommy McLain, come on now, haha.

Not everyone is aware of how close the music of Louisiana and Texas can be at times.

TM: We know all the Texas guys, and they know us, and it is a family thing. Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, the Texas Tornados, and we go out and play Austin quite a bit, and we have friends all over. Texas is a good place for us, and I love Austin, Texas, man.

C.C.: You have to understand that, unlike Scotland and Wales, England and Northern Ireland, our borders are pretty malleable around here. You have more Cajuns and swamp pop in East Texas, and we have more cowboys in South West Louisiana than they have got in Texas, and they have more Cajuns and crawfish balls than we have in Louisiana. And North Louisiana, well shit that might as well be Arkansas or Mississippi, that is nothing like South Louisiana. Everything is kind of different down here, and I will say one thing about the Willie and Tommy comparison. Willie is known as one of the masterful songwriters of the 20th Century in the whole world without a doubt, he has had countless number ones, and Tommy at 82 years old is writing the best songs of his life, and while Willie still writes I don’t think he is as prolific a writer as Tommy is today. Tommy is just sparking, he is like a roman candle.

Were you still writing songs during the 40 years between albums?

TM: Of course, I’m always writing them in my head. Someone will say something and you’d call that a hooker, and then you would take a line where people would say something. That is something that is really catchy, you know, and that is the way I write. I read a little bit, I read the bible a lot, and that is where some of that comes from. What it is, is that all of this has been done before, it is the style that you write and perform in, and it is a different step, a different attitude, and that is the way you get the people. You can’t do the same old thing, you have to give them something that’s a little different, that’s why I grew my hair and my beard. I wanted to be a writer, and that is what I have become, and God has been good to me.

You have Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello shouting your praises, and they know a thing or two about songwriting.

TM: They are some big-time dudes right there and I love them. They didn’t have to help me, and all of a sudden they were on board with all this, and it has just been a ball of fire. Elvis, I mean man it is unreal just what a gem he is. Nick Lowe and his whole family, I just love it, they really represent England and the English people well.

C.C.: I don’t know how the English got that bad reputation with the stiff upper lip and not being friendly and everyone looking down when they pass by, I have never found that. The English, the Brits have a joy of life that is very simpatico with the way we live our lives down here in the Gulf.  They are really wonderful and kind, and they will help you out, and that is certainly the experience we have had with the Brits on this album where they have just gone above and beyond. And Nick’s son Roy Lowe aged 15 a year and a half ago, he made his recording debut as the drummer on this record, on ‘Livin On The Losin End’, that is Roy on drums. When you have a hero like Nick Lowe and he kind of gives you his son and it is like go out into the world and teach my boy a few things I can’t teach him how to do, and let him be on your record, boy that is an honour, it is even better than him helping to write a song.

I know things are still a bit difficult, but do you have any plans to get over to the UK?

TM: Of course, tell them when C.C.

C.C.: We are doing three nights at Nell’s in West London opening for Nick on 24th, 25th, and 26th November. That will be a Thanksgiving show so we will want everyone to dress up and jive turkeys and come on out, haha.

TM: I’m looking forward to playing those shows. I’m looking around my home in Louisiana and it is just beautiful, but I get bored so I have to play, and I’ll keep playing no matter how old I get, haha. I want to get out on the road, travel, eat well, and meet people, and that is what keeps you going, you know. If you sit around too much you become that turtle, who just wants to sit in the heat and not get out. I’m a people person, I’ve got to move.

You have seen and heard a lot of music, and you’ve made a lot of music, if I was to ask you who you think is the greatest Louisiana musician, would you be able to answer?

TM: Probably Tommy McLain, haha. I like them all, I love each and every one of these guys, Rob Bernard, and Warren Storm, and I’d call them all the time when they were alive, but my phone was empty when they had all gone. Then I met C.C. Adcock and all those young guys, and man they liked the songs I was writing and now I’ve got a new family going on.

C.C.: Fats Domino was Tommy’s main man.

TM: Everyone liked Fats Domino and Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and all of those guys.

C.C: From Louisiana, Bobby Charles is a writer, and he was Tommy’s boy.

TM: Bobby is one of the greatest writers, if not the greatest writer. He could put some stuff together, he could really write it.

C.C.: It is interesting to know that Bobby and Tommy hung out a lot, and Bobby wrote ‘I Hope’ which is on this record for Tommy. He didn’t just do it, he held it in his pocket until the time was right because he knew it was such a big song, he has had it in his pocket for literally fifty years almost, which is pretty incredible. Tommy told me that at some point he stopped hanging out with Bobby because Bobby was such a monster writer and so infectious the way he could write, that Tommy was afraid to hang out with him in case he started nicking his style.

TM: If a songwriter hangs out with another songwriter you have to watch what you are doing because you will end up doing something they do, or use some similar words, so I had to break up our friendship and not hang out so much because we were playing our songs to each other. Bobby didn’t like the people, but I loved the people, and he was kind of reclusive. I loved him, but he was just like that, you know.

As you say, one of the best ever songwriters, irrespective of time or location.

C.C.: I think it is interesting that Tommy and Bobby respected each other enough for Tommy not to want to be in Bobby’s shadow, he didn’t want that stuff to rub off onto him, he just wanted to find his own way. Bobby was such an infectious writer that Tommy didn’t want to catch it. He did want to catch it because it was so good, but you had to make sure you didn’t if you wanted to do your own thing.

TM: Bobby Charles was a great writer for singers and musicians, everyone hooked up with the music business. People in the music business wanted to do all the songs he wrote but he didn’t like being an entertainer, I think he struggled with that. I loved all that, and then I started writing some gospel music and I kind of broke away from all that sort of life I was living. If you change one thing, you change everything.

C.C.: I worked with Bobby a bit and he always had a hangup about his voice. I liked his voice, I thought he had an authentic voice and it was genuine, but compared to Tommy and a lot of the other guys down here, he wasn’t a great singer. He certainly didn’t think so as far as being a great soul shouter, and he shied away from the live performance thing.

He has left a great legacy, and a great songbook and Tommy is still adding to his own songbook with  ‘I Ran Down Every Dream’.

C.C: I will say one thing if you are going to preserve a culture you have to have a language and a music genre has to have songs, songs are the language of a genre. Without new songs being flushed through you are going to be singing ‘Mathilda’ and ‘Before I Grow Too Old’ for the rest of your life, and that is cool and those songs will be played at weddings in Louisiana way beyond us, but hopefully these new songs Tommy has birthed will help invigorate and keep swamp pop music going.

TM: It is about sharing, a lot of these guys want to stay in Louisiana and make a little money in the casinos, but they are not taking what God gave them out to the people, and there are people all over this world who like music, it is like a smile is understood in any language. I have to share my music, I can write songs all day long but if I didn’t have anybody to sing them to or have something going on with them I would go mad, you know.

The fact you want to keep doing it Tommy is good for everybody.

TM: The love affair with music, haha, I’ve tried quitting playing music when I got into Catholicism there when I was about 45 or 50 and I got into all gospel. I had an Ave Maria radio show, the Virgin Mary radio show, and I always tell the audiences when I finish with my act that I worked for the Virgin Mary. I was there six years on that radio station, I was their number one act, and I was a bad boy when I got on there and I didn’t know too much about religion or anything. I learned quickly and I brought my piano with me, that got me through and I had the number one show six years in a row, Ave Maria, Catholic radio. I slipped away from the rock’n’roll life I was living, I did a lot of drugs when I was young because that was the culture, everybody did a little something, you know.

You can’t keep doing stuff like that all your life.

TM: You grow and you learn, and if you like something then your audience will tell you if it is alright.

C.C. You can’t keep doing it your whole life Tommy, but you can have fun while you are doing it, haha.

What message do you want to send to the UK readers?

TM: I love them. The United Kingdom has been a big inspiration for me and I can’t wait to get back. I played the Clapham Grand, I forget what year that was, with Johnny Allen and Warren Storm. We all went over with a French deal that put on the Clapham show, and it was my first time over there and I was hooked, I just like England. It is discombobulated here with lots of political schemes, of course, you have some of that over there, but you are a lot cleaner than we are in America, haha.

C.C.: It is civilised.

TM: I love your weather, I love the countryside, I love your women, oh oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that haha.

C.C: I always think the reason why Tommy’s records got big over there was because of Charlie Gillett and ‘Another Saturday Night’, we know that was the impetus for a lot of his fans over there. We’ve been able to parley that and double-down to make the record with some great English men, Louis Eliot one of the great songwriters from the band Rialto co-wrote ‘London Too’ which is Tommy’s love letter to the city he loves. We had the great Jon Cleary on piano, who is a Brit from over here, and Van Dyke Parks. We have so many great friends from over there, and when we are over there we stay in Notting Hill at what we call the Swamp Pop Palace in the bayou basement, haha. We stay right off Elgin Cresent and go hang out at the Laylow Restaurant and Club, play some little shows and walk down Portobello Road, we can go get our breakfast at the Electric Diner. We just love it there, we just feel at home there.

TM: There is nothing like a good cold pint of beer in England brother, haha. I’m not a drinker anymore but I love the Guinness brother, I just love it.

Guinness is a liquid food and not really an alcoholic drink, haha.

TM: It certainly is a food man, haha.

Any last messages to our readers?

C.C.: I just want people to be aware of that ‘London Too’ song on the record. It is the last song on the record and the last song Tommy and I wrote with help from Louis Eliot.

TM: I wrote that song quickly and got C.C. and Louis Eliot to add some lines, and it really is about how I feel about London, it is London through my eyes. People should play that thing and listen to it, then make up their own minds. I’m really proud of this record and I’ve listened to this more than any of my other albums. Normally I’ll listen to a couple of tracks and then move on to the next project. I have to admit though, I keep playing this record so I’m feeling very good about it. C.C’s production is great on this record, it has some claws on it, and it is beginning to stick, you know.

C.C.: I just want to give a shout-out to the great Ed Harcourt in an English publication. Ed has a rock’n’roll pedigree, he has played and written with everybody from Lisa Marie Presley to the Afghan Wigs. I holed up at his studio in Oxfordshire and he really loved Tommy. ED could learn how to play like Tommy and he really helped me because he put a little bit of a different elegance on it on a couple of songs like ‘If You Don’t Love Me’, and I made that with him in Oxfordshire, and then we brought it back to Tommy’s to put his thing on it. Ed was a great supporter of this as well, and another big figure from the London music scene. I think it is safe to say that this record represents the Lafayette London silk road.

TM: It represents the American and English brands really well, we’ve also got Japan playing me.

C.C.: Tommy believes in God and in timing, and he believes God has told him the time is right for ‘I Ran Down Every Dream’, and it sure enough seems to be working out very well.

TM: I had a heart attack and that set us back, and then my house burnt down and that set us back.

C.C.: We’ve had three hurricanes and three horrible freezes, and we have a summer where everything is just catching on fire.

TM: I’m also always falling in and out of love with women, it has been a long ride brother, but we are coming to some truth right here. I just wish everyone could have as much fun as we have. That is the name of the game, peace of mind, and sharing your music with people, and I need them more than they need me, and when I hear that applause it is like come on man, that will make anybody young.

C.C.: Tommy was watching the Jubilee event on TV in Pittsburgh, and he asked if Queen Elizabeth is dating now her ol’ boy has been gone over a year, she has had a wonderful life and I bet she hasn’t hung out in a honkytonk, Tommy would give her a night out to remember. I’m thinking of getting him in that room, haha.

Tommy Mclain’s ‘I Ran Down Every Dream’ is released on Yep Roc Records on 26th August.


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About Martin Johnson 242 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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