This collection showcases McLain’s variety well. We begin with three somewhat raw early tunes and commence toward selections from three very distinct sessions. The first of these sessions, (which resulted in the album “If You Don’t Love Me”) find McLain the most steadfastly in a Swamp Pop state of mind. The second session with its harmonies, piano, and keening pedal steel displays hard-core honky-tonk and even western swing leanings. The third (which produced the album “Good Mornin’ Louisiana”) is the most eclectic of the bunch. There is a little of each of the above to be found, an also some engaging mid-seventies country-rock.
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