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Taken from NOLA (Aug 21, 2022)

Chasing the dream: Swamp pop legend Tommy McLain won't let a second chance pass him by

by Jake Clapp, Gambit staff writer


PHOTO BY JIM HERRINGTON
Tommy McLain releases 'I Ran Down Every Dream' on Friday. PHOTO BY JIM HERRINGTON


Tommy McLain is enjoying the attention.


Ever since his new album, "I Ran Down Every Dream," was announced in April, the 82-year-old Louisiana musician has been fielding interviews with both local and national media outlets to talk about his first solo LP in more than 40 years. Rolling Stone featured McLain in April, and each new single has brought more interest from listeners.


He's also been busier than ever on stage. McLain played several sets during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, including joining Elvis Costello during his headlining set and opening for Lucinda Williams for her two-night stint at the House of Blues after festival hours. When Gambit recently called him up at his home in Oakdale, Louisiana, McLain had just returned from supporting Nick Lowe and surf rockers Los Straitjackets on a dozen shows and was preparing to fly to Chicago and Michigan for a couple more gigs.


"It's unreal, brother. That's what I live for," McLain says. "When I can get to the audience and see that they're really listening, they'll give you that applause. I don't get in no trouble when I'm on stage. It's when I'm off the stage that I get into trouble. The minute I'm up there, something comes over me, you take on a different glamour."


Now, in the homestretch to the album's release on Aug. 26, McLain is happy to talk about his long career and recent resurgence.


"I don't mind at all. It's just part of the business. I don't mind telling people about my life and about what I did," McLain says.


McLain broke out in 1966 when his version of Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams" reached No. 15 on the U.S. Billboard charts. The success of the record put him on the road, and in those years, McLain shared stages with acts like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and The Yardbirds.


While his other tunes never matched the same Billboard success, McLain became an important father of Louisiana swamp pop with songs like "Before I Grow Too Old," "Try to Find Another Man" and "No Tomorrows Now." And for a time, McLain lived the rock 'n' roll life - until he decided he needed to put down the bottle and drugs and turned to Jesus as a Catholic evangelist.


McLain has been a consistent presence on stages in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi for more than six decades and a popular player to other musicians in-the-know, from Lafayette-born singer-guitarist C.C. Adcock to British rockers like Costello and Lowe. He's even been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, twice. But the wider music industry left him behind after "Sweet Dreams" faded into memory.



With "I Ran Down Every Dream," though, McLain is getting a late-career second act. And even the road to the new album has been fraught - with a heart attack, a pandemic, hurricanes, an arson and a label change.


So McLain is taking advantage of the opportunity.


"This time, it's a lot better. There's more wisdom," he says. "I know where I'm going and what I'm doing. In the '60s, man, you were just like running through the wind. This time, it's not a bottle of whiskey and a line of cocaine. It's all about business and doing the right thing for your audience."


PHOTO BY CHRIS GRANGER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE
Elvis Costello, left, sings with guest performer Tommy McLain, right, on the Gentilly Stage at the 2022 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. PHOTO BY CHRIS GRANGER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE


There are numerous bittersweet moments on "I Ran Down Every Dream." The 13-track album finds McLain often looking back on his life, sometimes with regrets but also fondness for the life he's lived. Maybe there are some things McLain would have done differently, now that he's older and wiser, but he knows it's been a good ride.


"But that's my life / Hey, how about you? / Do you find yourself forgiven? / When I wake up with a brand new tune / That's how I know I'm still living," he sings on the title track, a song co-written with Costello and Adcock.


"With Tommy, you are going to hear a man singing from his soul, a beautiful man," Costello has said. "He's one of the great unsung heroes of American vocalizing, and he still sounds as good as he did when he cut 'Sweet Dreams' in 1966."


A pianist and singer, McLain became instantly recognized for his smooth, tenor voice which gives a glimpse of the sincere personality underneath. His voice is a little raspier these days, but the underlying sweetness is as present as ever on "I Ran Down Every Dream."



Produced by Adcock, McLain's close friend and frequent collaborator, the new album features 10 originals written or co-written by McLain. Adcock, Costello and Lowe also have co-writer credits on several tunes.


Along with new material, McLain decided to re-record "Before I Grow Too Old" - a Fats Domino original written with Dave Bartholomew and Bobby Charles - and "No Tomorrows Now." And McLain sings Charles' "I Hope" in tribute to the late swamp pop pioneer.


There are touching, subtle remembrances of lost musicians on the album. McLain dedicated the upbeat song "Somebody" to Texas singer-songwriter Doug Sahm, an old friend McLain met in the late '60s. Adcock and Texas Tornados founder (and Sahm musical partner) Augie Meyers are featured on the song. And blues guitarist Denny Freeman and drummer Warren Storm both play on the record in some of their last recording sessions.


"I Ran Down Every Dream" also features numerous guest musicians: Ivan Neville, Steve Riley, Jon Cleary, Mike Dillon, Tif "Teddy" Lamson, Julie Odell, Dave Ranson, Van Dyke Parks and more.


"I was telling someone, it starts out with me and my life, these songs that I write, and then halfway through, the audience starts going, 'Oh! That's me he's singing about. I did the same things he did,'" McLain says. "I lived that life already, and it leaves me, and if it gets [the listener] thinking, then I've accomplished my mission."


McLain was born in 1940 in small town Jonesville and in his teens fell in love with the rock 'n' roll of Fats Domino and Little Richard. He got his start playing in bands like The Boogie Kings and The Vel-Tones through the late '50s and '60s.


Adcock semi-jokes that his father judged any new music by The Boogie Kings.


"The Boogie Kings were just the standard," Adcock says, "and they were kind of right. I never got to see the Boogie Kings in their heyday and great golden years when it was Clint West ... who was Tommy's great singing partner. We live in the center of the swamp pop universe."


So growing up in Lafayette, learning to play guitar, Adcock of course knew McLain's music. After school in the '80s, he and his friends would go to the Yesterday's Lounge and catch matinees of McLain, Warren Storm and the house band.


Over the years, Adcock - as his own music career started to boom - got to know McLain better and the two became close friends, playing together often in the swamp pop supergroup Lil' Band o' Gold.


In 2018, Adcock was near McLain's home in Oakdale and decided to stop in. Although McLain hadn't released a solo full-length album in decades, he was constantly writing, and he sat down at a piano to show Adcock a few pieces he'd been working on. The pieces stuck in Adcock's head, and he knew McLain needed to put them on tape.


The two men started working on the new record, but a chance encounter in early 2019 at South by Southwest with a representative from Decca Records gave the project momentum. McLain and Adcock were playing some of the new tunes at the Austin, Texas, festival and the rep "had a visceral reaction to Tommy. He started crying," Adcock says. The label was interested in picking up the new album.



Elvis Costello also gave the new album a boost.


Back in 1974, U.K. label Oval Records released "Another Saturday Night," a compilation of south Louisiana swamp pop and rhythm and blues, and front and center was McLain and his version of "Before I Grow Too Old." The compilation was a cult hit in the U.K. - and made a number of English musicians, including Costello and Lowe, Tommy McLain fans. An example of the popularity of "Another Saturday Night": English singer Lily Allen in 2011 hired McLain, Adcock and the Lil' Band o' Gold to play her wedding and danced to "Before I Grow Too Old."


Costello and McLain met in 2010 at a tribute for Bobby Charles, and the two kept in contact. So when he began working on a new album, McLain reached out to Costello, who co-wrote the title song as well as the track "My Hidden Heart."


"Tommy in a way is an Irish tenor, and his voice resonates" with the Brits, Adcock says.


McLain and Adcock were knee deep in working on the record when life started throwing up roadblocks in late 2019. That fall, McLain suffered a severe heart attack, requiring open-heart surgery and weeks of recovery in the hospital. Adcock called McLain a few nights before his surgery to talk.


"He was really fragile, and he goes, 'This may be it brother,'" Adcock says. "And we had the talk - 'Get the record out, get these songs out somehow if something happens to me.' And he goes, 'C.C., be careful. I know you think you've got to live all sorts of shit, so you can write them songs, but it don't work that way, son. It's the other way around. You end up livin' the songs you wrote."


But McLain recovered well and even wrote some new tunes while in the hospital, Adcock says. But right as he was starting to get back on his feet, the pandemic shutdowns in spring 2020 made recording - and everything in general - more difficult. Then, hurricanes Laura and Delta devastated southwest Louisiana that fall.


Things started to look up in 2021. Pandemic restrictions were lifted, and McLain and Adcock were able to nearly finish the new record as well as do some touring. But the beginning of 2022 threw in two last knife-turns: First, a serial arsonist burned down McLain's house, and within a matter of days, the deal with Decca fell through, Adcock says.


Luckily, Adcock says, they were able to pivot quickly and found a new home with independent label Yep Roc Records. And barring a plague of locusts, "I Ran Down Every Dream" finally will be released Friday.


"Tommy is a star. He has an incredible talent as a songwriter and as a vocalist and as a guy who can transfer his soul to every person," Adcock says. "When he sings, people stop and look, sit down and start listening. He's really thriving now."


IMAGE BY SAM HARRIS
The cover of Tommy McLain's new album 'I Ran Down Every Dream'. IMAGE BY SAM HARRIS


The term "rediscovery" is being used a lot to describe the moment McLain is now having. And it's true, to an extent - new people are learning about McLain's long career. But Louisiana music lovers know where McLain has been. He never stopped writing music and gigging across Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, although he readily admits to having got burnt out playing casinos.


"But I wanted to expand, I wanted people up north, west, all over the world to hear my music," McLain says. "And now all that's coming to fruition."


McLain is widely seen as a cornerstone of swamp pop - the uniquely south Louisiana blend of rhythm and blues, country and western and Cajun influences - but when he cut "Sweet Dreams" back in 1966, he wasn't thinking about any genre descriptions.


"When I heard they were calling the music in Louisiana swamp pop, I didn't like that at first, but then it grew on me," McLain says. "But this album here, I wanted to keep creating. I didn't want to stay just one thing. I'm Tommy McLain, I want to be 'swamp popular.' Let's take it to another level. I just want to climb the ladder. I want to get a little bit further up. I wanna get closer to Heaven, my brother."



 
 

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