NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Felice Bryant: A Well-Spent Life

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Felice Bryant was the first woman who moved to Nashville to be a songwriter. Consider the implications of that, for a town and a music industry that were built on songs. Without Felice Bryant, there would have been no Loretta Lynn , no Tammy Wynette , no Dolly Parton or the many other women writers and artists who have followed them. Felice, who died Tuesday (April 22), was truly a pioneer. In an industry that has been male-dominated from the start, Felice Bryant took no crap.

Young Felice and her young husband Boudleaux had had just one song recorded when they made the move to Nashville. That song, “Country Boy,” became a No. 7 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens in 1949. The Bryants had been performing together in Green Bay, Wis., on The Coffee Clutch radio show on station WBAY that same year and later moved to Boudleaux’s native Moultrie, Ga., and had been bumping around the country. When “Country Boy” started clicking, Fred Rose, the smart Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who had moved to Nashville in the early 1940s and formed Acuff-Rose Publications with country music king Roy Acuff , urged the Bryants to move to Nashville.

There were no full-time songwriters in Nashville in 1950. There was little in the way of any music industry in the city at all, with Acuff-Rose being the pioneers. Felice and Boudleaux set the song standards, with such early 1950s country hits as “Hey, Joe” for Carl Smith and “I’ve Been Thinking” for Eddy Arnold . When rock ’n’ roll hit in the mid-‘50s — with devastating results to the fledgling country music market — the Bryants struck gold, first with a song that had been rejected by many artists. “Bye, Bye Love” as recorded by the Everly Brothers, revolutionized the rock world. And the Bryants revolutionized songwriting and changed the course of popular music.

They also bounced songwriting innovations off each other. “I remember I needed a rhyme for ‘hardware’ in a song I was working on, ’Have a Good Time’,” Felice later remembered. “I had the top and the bottom, but I didn’t have a bridge. I couldn’t get anywhere. So Boudleaux starts into the bridge and I thought ’Ha! What is he going to do with hardware?’ Well, he rhymed it with ’yard there.’ ’Go peddle you hardware. Try the folks ’cross the yard there.’ My Lord! It just knocked me out. Now, he didn’t have a rhyming dictionary, because that song was written before Chet (Atkins) loaned us such a thing.”

As the first woman to move to Nashville to write songs and as the lyricist of the Bryant songwriting team, she was instrumental in building country music, in launching rock music and in turning Nashville into the publishing and recording center it has become. She and Boudleaux were also ahead of their time in protecting their copyrights and getting them eventually returned to them, resulting in their forming the House of Bryant for their thousands of copyrighted songs. Their musical output is literally staggering. Their 29 original Everly Brothers songs were a foundation of rock ’n’ roll. Their songs have been covered by artists ranging from Tony Bennett, Roy Orbison, Nazareth, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris , Sarah Vaughan, George Harrison, Simon & Garfunkel and many others. Apart from the many Felice-Boudleaux compositions, she penned such classics as “We Could” by herself (she wrote it as a birthday present to Boudleaux).

Her life with Boudleaux is a great love story. As I recall what she told me, they met in Milwaukee, where she was working as an elevator operator in the Schroeder Hotel. She had been writing poems but didn’t know that you could actually do anything with them musically. He was performing there with a jazz group. Boudleaux was a classically-trained violinist-turned fiddle player. Her name was Matilda Genevieve Scaduto then; “Felice” came later from a nickname Boudleaux gave her. Felice told me that when she saw Boudleaux walking toward her through the hotel lobby, “I had dreamed of Boudleaux when I was 8 years old. When this man was walking toward me, I recognized him right away. The only thing that was wrong was that he didn’t have a beard, although he grew one for me later. In the dream we were dancing to our song. Only it was our song.” Their life together became one song, in many ways. Boudleaux died in 1987.

Felice also raised two sons, Del and Dane, who incidentally are two of the finest men I have met in my years in Nashville.

She was also a very expressive, funny and very compassionate person. I was privileged a few years ago to spend some time with Felice in Gatlinburg working on a project with her, and I never had more fun and was never made to feel more at home by anyone. I greatly enjoyed being driven around town by this stately woman in her long, green Mercedes 600 Pullman limousine with its elegant side curtains as she gave me a running commentary on the sights and the people we passed. Sometime later I ran into her son Del and I mentioned something about how much I admired that car and how well it suited his mother. He told me Felice had donated that Mercedes 600 to the Ronald McDonald House charity. How very much in character for her to do that. Felice will be missed by a great many people and by a music industry that owes her a great deal by way of tribute and appreciation.

Nashville Skyline Archive