Hit records are usually determined less by the music-buying public than by the whims of a few executives. It is they who decide what is to be recorded, released, backed with cash, and played on the radio. These executives purport to know what we want to hear and when we want to hear it, but sometimes they are mistaken. With rare exception it has always been so. One such exception was Tommy McLain’s “Sweet Dreams”......
There are so many country music hits coming out of Houston that it has become the Nashville of Texas that Austin always promised to be. While Willie Nelson, Asleep At The Wheel, and Jerry Jeff Walker, and Alvin Crow all may be excellent recognised stars, they can’t compete with the frequent visits paid to the top of the country charts by Freddy Fender, Roy Head, Mickey Gilley, Randy Cornor, and Johnny Lee, among others. What makes the Houston signature so delectable is its stripped down soul; most of these hits have welded a modern country arrangement on to an old South Louisiana swamp blues standard, often with the gritty saxophone solo breaks left in.
Tommy McLain and his Muletrain Band is the finest example of a band hooked on swamp blues, refried country style, that I’ve heard live. They haven’t reached the degree of popularity of a Freddy Fender yet, they are headed in that direction. They’re the real thing - a bayou bred group that works live dates all along the Gulf. Country with a little bit of soul, Tommy McLain and the Muletrain Band all tip their hats to their home state, the secret weapon of Texas’ Nashville. C’est bon.
Joe Nick Patoski
Notes on the Recordings
This album begins with three tunes of undetermined provenance, which sound as if they pre-date the other recordings by quite some time. McLain’s voice is not quite as raspy as it was to become, and the playing still rooted in 1950’s conventions.
From these mysterious early sessions we move through a lovely cover of George Jones’ classic tearjerker “Tender Years” and the Mule Train’s rollicking instrumental showstopper “Honky Tonk” to a succession of McLain’s most famous Swamp Pop. Though both “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” are now more associated with McLain’s Crazy Cajun labelmate Freddy Fender, we can hear on this disc that McLain’s versions too have well stood the test of time.
“Sweet Dreams” follows, and though this was not the version with which he scored the big hit, it showcases a more mature artist recorded with more sophisticated gadgetry. Of the next five songs, three (“No Tomorrows Now”, “If You Don’t Love Me”, and “When It Rains It Pours”) are McLain’s own compositions, which display well his underrated songwriting ability. Listen closely for the nearly infrasonic baritone sax underpinnings. The remaining two are a double-dip of selections from the incomparable Bobby Charles’ catalog: the delightful “Before I Grow Too Old” and the mournful “Tennessee Blues”.
The wail of the steel guitar heralds the honky-tonk set that follows, beginning with “Let Me Be The Singer” and concluding with “Where You Been Baby”. “Catfish John” invokes the ghost of Bob Wills, and the aforementioned “Where You Been Baby” is to me one of McLain’s very finest compositions and vocal performances. The harmony vocalist, believed to be his long-time collaborator Pat Strazza, doubles up McLain’s voice perfectly.
The honky-tonk chestnut “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”, here presented in a country-rock style, kicks off the final section of the disc. The song was a top ten country hit for Joe and Rose Lee Maphis in 1952 and later recorded by Gram Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers. The Burrito Bros.’ version is the title track of their Edsel release, and forms the model from which this one was drawn. “I Can’t Go On” hearkens back to McLain’s Swamp Pop days, while a funky wah-wah guitar percolates throughout his cover of the Cates Brothers “Stuck in New Orleans”.
Three well-chosen covers close out the disc. Merle Haggard’s timeless “Today I Started Loving You Again” weds well Swamp Pop and Honky-Tonk, while a tasteful string section and classy B-3 touches make for a lovely, elegiac rendering of Bobby Charles’ achingly poignant “I Hope”. McLain and Strazza’s vocals here are outshone on this disc by only “Where You Been Baby”. The “what me worry?” lyrics of “Good Morning Louisiana” provide a well-earned catharsis after “I Hope”.
Tommy McLain has been one of the steadiest performers in the Swamp Pop field for over thirty years. He has entertained tens of thousands of fans in venues ranging from tough shrimper bars and roughneck taverns to European festival grounds and on American Bandstand. This winsome collection finds McLain at both his ascent and at his peak as an artist. In it you will see plainly just how this erstwhile sideman stepped from the wings and became both one of Swamp Pop’s most enduring performers, as well as one of its most soulful. When you’re hitched up to Tommy McLain’s Mule Train, you’re riding in style.
~John Nova Lomax, January 1999
Tommy McLain Bio
Tommy McLain was born on 15 March, 1940 in Jonesville, Louisiana, in the east central portion of the state. Roughly 15 miles east of Jonesville, hard by the Mississippi River, lies the famous town of Ferriday, which of course produced musical cousins Mickey Gilley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and their disgraced kinsman, the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, in his own right a first-rate singer.
McLain is not a Cajun, and Jonesville lies some 30 miles to the north of the most generous boundary accorded to Acadiana, in a section of Louisiana that is much more akin culturally to Mississippi than the Cajun country. Nevertheless he went on to fame in a primarily Cajun style of music, as have many other non-cajun musicians from the region.
At the age of 19, McLain landed his first gig as a member of Jack Arnold’s Flames. Moving on from the Flames, McLain and Clint West both joined Red Smiley’s Vel-Tones. Soon thereafter, he and West joined the legendary Boogie Kings, the still-extant, ever-changing aggregation that seems bound to give the Hackberry Ramblers a run for their money as the longest-running band in the Bayou land. The Boogie Kings were Louisiana’s first white band with a black repertoire, and in the early 60’s they were one of south Louisiana’s hottest tickets, especially among the young. High school proms and fraternity gigs were the band’s bread and butter.
As related above, it was as a bassist that McLain reigned as a Boogie King, but a voice such as his is impossible to contain. Possessed of both a honeyed sweetness and a sandpapery scratch, comparisons to a Louisiana Rod Stewart are not far off the mark. Why he has not after “Sweet Dreams” had more chart success is simply one of life’s imponderables.
"Sweet Dreams" was written by Don Gibson and is one of the most recorded and successful songs in the country canon. First released by "The Singing Sheriff", Louisiana's Faron Young, "Sweet Dreams" raced to # 2 in the summer of 1956, sparking a version by the song's creator, Don Gibson, which reached # 9 two months later. Gibson took it to # 6 five years later, setting the stage for perhaps the best-known version of the song, Patsy Cline'sTop 5 rendition in 1963. Emmylou Harris revived Gibson's durable copyright in 1976 and reached # 1 with her superb interpretation. Three years later rising star Reba McEntire had her biggest hit to date with the song, reaching # 19. Despite all this country activity, McLain has had the only major pop hit on "Sweet Dreams" to date, besting earlier charted releases by both Gibson and Cline*.
“Sweet Dreams” unfortunately proved to be McLain’s biggest hit, though he has continued to record, compose, and perform excellent material ever since. In the late 60’s he often toured with some strange co-headliners, as he related to music historian Shane Bernard. “I was on a two-week tour with (the Yardbirds) when I met (Jimmy Page). He would play his guitar, he would get that thing a feedback going through that amp, and he would play that thing with a violin bow. And I didn’t know what the hell they were doing, I was doing “Sweet Dreams”. I was doing south Louisiana music.” He did score a regional hit with Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old” in 1968, and in the early 70’s one of his compositions, “If You Don’t Love Me”, was taken to the top of the Billboard country chart by Freddy Fender. He recorded several more albums for Jin before moving on to Huey Meaux’s Crazy Cajun label, and has fronted the Mule Train Band for the last thirty years.
~John Nova Lomax, January 1999
*(Editor’s note: In the UK however, where McLain’s version reached # 49 in the pop charts, US guitarist Roy Buchanan attained the # 40 position in 1973 with his languid version. The song’s most recent visit to the UK chart came in 1981 when, as the second single from his album of country covers, “Almost Blue”, Elvis Costello took the song to # 42).