For a one-hit-wonder, Tommy McLain admits he has few complaints.
Back in 1966, he’d climbed into the top 15 with a swamp-lounge version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams,” which showcased the Louisiana native’s tremulous voice. Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe were fans of his work; Joe Strummer cut a cover of “Before I Grow Too Old,” a Fats Domino B-side associated with McLain (Strummer’s version was called “Silver and Gold”). The drugs and alcohol were behind him, and decades later, McLain was gigging regularly in his home state.
“I’ve had a great career, but I was doing a lot of casinos here in Louisiana and I got burned out,” McLain, 82, tells Rolling Stone from his home there. “I was doing ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Matilda’ every night. I wanted to take swamp-pop a little further.”
Help arrived in the form of veteran Louisiana producer, musician, and artist C.C. Adcock — and along the way, Costello, Lowe, and a host of veteran luminaries, including Ivan Neville, Van Dyke Parks, and Texas Tornados organist Augie Meyers. This August, McLain takes another crack at the big time with I Ran Down Every Dream, his first pop album in decades; the title track, a duet and co-write with Costello, has just been released as a preview.
McLain, who calls Costello “a kind-hearted guy,” remembers the British singer and writer coming to see one of his shows years ago and talking up McLain’s vintage gospel album; Costello even joined him on stage. Costello and McLain wound up collaborating on two songs, “My Hidden Heart” and “I Ran Down Every Dream.” The latter, a mournful look back at life’s regrets, began as a McLain song called “That’s My Life” but morphed with Costello’s input. A bit of swamp noir, it showcases McLain’s warm rasp and also features a vocal cameo by Costello. “With Tommy, you are going to hear a man singing from his soul, a beautiful man,” Costello says. “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.”
Adcock concurs that McLain is “one of the last great voices in American music. Tommy resonates with people. He’s got that thing we all talk about in the music world — when he sings, people understand and feel him.”
A fan of Domino and Little Richard, McLain kicked around in bands and worked as a DJ in Louisiana before his locally recorded version of “Sweet Dreams” — initially a hit for Patsy Cline — became an unlikely smash. Given the British Invasion and folk-rock moments in which it was released, the boy-group pop of “Sweet Dreams” was an anachronistic, croony throwback. But on the pop chart, it wound up placing higher than Cline’s version, or even subsequent renditions by Faron Young, Reba McEntire, and Tammy Wynette. The market for forlorn love songs never went away.
McLain worked on some Dick Clark road shows; on one, a multi-act tour that included the Yardbirds, he recalls seeing Jimmy Page “do strange things with his guitar, playin’ with a fiddle bow.” But McLain admits he quickly fell into the rock & roll lifestyle. Hispanic country kingpin Freddy Fender did well with a version of McLain’s “If You Don’t Love (Why Don’t You Just Leave Me Alone),” but McLain himself struggled to take his career to another level.
In the Seventies, he scored a local hit with “No Tomorrows Now,” formed the Muletrain Band, and even cut a version of Abba’s “Another Town, Another Train.” “I had trouble with that tune,” he recalls. “It took me a while to get into the story of that. But now I love it. It’s like a movie.” But little of it made a dent, and he resigned himself to making a living playing anywhere in his home state that would have him.
Work on I Ran Down Every Dream began four years ago, interrupted by McLain’s heart attack, a pandemic, three hurricanes, and a fire in McLain’s house. All along, McLain kept working on new tunes. (“Son of a bitch kept writing,” cracks Adcock, who had the idea of a new McLain album.) In addition to the two Costello collaborations, the record also includes haunted updates of “Before I Grow Too Old” and “No Tomorrows Now,” along with “Greatest Show on Hurt,” co-written with Lowe. (He and Costello discovered McLain by way of a late Seventies swamp-pop compilation, Another Saturday Night.) “There’s a lot of similarity between pub-rock and swamp-rock,” says Adcock. “They’re for working people who come to dance and have fun after a work day. I think that’s what resonated with those cats.”
McLain will play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Retrieval in May, followed by a string of Northeast dates with Lowe that will finally see him busting out of Louisiana — and leaving any old habits behind. “It used to be a bottle of whiskey and cocaine, but now it’s all business,” McLain says. “Everyone tries something when they’re young. I’ve been through it, and I came out of it alive. I don’t do that anymore. I changed my life. You young people living wild, you may not get as far as this.”