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Swamp pop artist Tommy McLain on his new album, "I Ran Down Every Dream"

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When I walked into our studios in Culver City, Calif., to finally meet swamp pop legend Tommy McLain, I was so pleased to see him decked out in velour pants and bright white cowboy boots.

Hello, hello.

His long Santa Claus beard flowing down his chest.

Oh, this is your show costume now (laughter).

TOMMY MCLAIN: That's it, baby. You roll out of bed and get ready to go.

CHANG: You look...

McLain was one of the inventors of swamp pop. It's a melange of R&B, country-western, gospel and traditional French Louisiana music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' ON THE LOSIN' END")

MCLAIN: (Singing) This morning, on my front porch swing, I heard red birds sing.

CHANG: McLain is 82 years old, and he's out with a new album with his producer and guitarist C.C. Adcock. But, you know, there was a point not that long ago when McLain didn't think anybody was going to hear it.

MCLAIN: Some old boy come through the neighborhood and just had to pick my house and burn it down, but I wasn't in there. Then we had a pandemic. We couldn't even play or anything. And then we had hurricanes, and I had a triple bypass heart attack.

CHANG: But he kept pushing forward.

MCLAIN: The bad man was after me, but I've overcome so far. I didn't give up.

CHANG: And sure enough, "I Ran Down Every Dream" became Tommy McLain's first album in four decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' ON THE LOSIN' END")

MCLAIN: (Singing) I'm tired of living on the losing end. I'm stepping out into the wind. I got a little money jingle-jangling in.

CHANG: McLain first hit it big back in 1966, with a recording of the country ballad, "Sweet Dreams."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET DREAMS")

MCLAIN: (Singing) Sweet, sweet dreams of you.

CHANG: This catapulted him to a new level of fame.

MCLAIN: 1966 - I was on top of the world. I ran through that money and my life like it was ice cream. I was here at the Gene Autry's Hotel Continental Sunset Strip - Dr. Martin Luther King, I met him and flew on a plane with him and Coretta. That's a great thing that happened in my life.

CHANG: But McLain says that kind of success and hard living eventually caught up with him. At age 50, he turned to the Catholic Church.

MCLAIN: So I had to go to confession one day. I said, Father Duke - I said, I can't play secular music no more - rock 'n' roll. I said everybody's calling me, getting mad at me. And the priest looked at me and said, Tommy, you go to one of them honky-tonks, get the people out there to come to the Catholic Church. We can't go. See this collar. You can go do it and take off. Catholic evangelist - boom, there I am.

CHANG: There you are.

MCLAIN: I got happiness in my life, girl. I really do.

CHANG: Well, yeah. I mean, even though you have, you know, become a preacher, you've been performing and writing songs all the while, how does it feel to have an album come out after so long?

MCLAIN: Ailsa, I'm sitting here and can't hardly believe it. That's a long time - 40 years - to have an international album like we got going. I'll tell you what. Let us play "I Ran Down Every Dream" off of our album. C.C. Adcock going to get to them and me and I'm going to try to gargle through this with my old voice.

CHANG: (Laughter) Can't wait.

MCLAIN: I ran down every dream. Two, three, four.

(Singing, playing guitar) I remember a long time ago. Records sent me reeling. Falling in and out of love. Music - it kept interfering. And we were young, we'd set this world on fire. Change everyone's opinion. Now this world's made me the liar. From a hero to the villain.

TOMMY MCLAIN AND C C ADCOCK: (Singing) But I ran down every dream. I swear, I had the best intention.

C C ADCOCK: (Singing) Best intention.

MCLAIN AND ADCOCK: (Singing) I ran down every dream. Some good, some bad, some we shall not ever mention.

ADCOCK: (Singing) Ever mention, ever mention.

MCLAIN: (Singing) I remember.

MCLAIN AND ADCOCK: (Singing) I remember. I remember.

CHANG: Oh, that was gorgeous. This is such a treat.

This album - it also has this star-studded guest list, like Nick Lowe, Van Dyke Parks. You co-wrote the title track with Elvis Costello. Can I just ask, how did that collaboration with Elvis Costello come about?

MCLAIN: I didn't know Elvis Costello that good. We played in New Orleans for a memorial, and he and I just got to talking - two old Catholic boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HIDDEN HEART")

MCLAIN: (Singing) I walked back to the house I love and found only rubble.

That son of a gun wrote me a tune called "Hidden Heart" - Elvis Costello. I mean, he didn't have to do that. He just wanted to help old Tommy McLain. We've all become a family now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HIDDEN HEART")

MCLAIN: (Singing) My hidden heart. In my hidden heart, if this torment could cease.

I'm living another life, and I ain't lying about that.

CHANG: And that's what I want to ask you about because you've said a number of times already you feel like you're living a new life. Do you think all those challenges that happened to you the last few years, all that anguish - do you think it helped shape the sound of this album?

MCLAIN: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I didn't think I'd ever get up out of that bed and sing. I lost all my extremities. You couldn't - you know, don't think that's going to kill you 'cause you have a heart attack. You go - it's a learning situation. If you live, you learn. You better keep that on your mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEFORE I GROW TOO OLD")

MCLAIN: (Singing) I've got to hurry up before I grow to old, and I'm going to take a trip.

CHANG: I heard when you were recuperating from surgery, you were writing in your hospital bed - writing music.

MCLAIN: Yeah. I have to do that. I've got to have music around me. That's all I know. That's my gift, you know? So I talk to everybody about music, and they talk about whatever they do, and I don't understand a word they're saying because music's all I can do, Ailsa.

CHANG: (Laughter) I love it. It is your gift. Tommy McLain - he released his first album in 40 years earlier this year. It's called "I Ran Down Every Dream." Thank you so much, Tommy, for coming in person, here.

MCLAIN: God bless you Ailsa and this wonderful...

CHANG: Such a joy.

MCLAIN: ...Show. I can't believe I'm sitting here. Brand new life, you know, we're on top of the world. And you got the smile - if I had your smile, I'd be a trillionaire. That's - (laughter) yeah.

CHANG: (Laughter) Love you, Tommy.

MCLAIN: You're wonderful, Ailsa. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.