|The Elvis Costello
Elvis talks about country music
In your best albums list in Vonrty Fair you included some 50 classic country or related albums. Do you still listen to the genre or do you think it's best times are over?
My allergic reaction to the whole big black stetson-hairspray- lipgloss-let's-sing-like-Celine Dion-Nashville music is pretty much like that song on Doug Sahm's last album: "Oh no, not another one".
However every time you despair and think all the best times are gone, something will happen to give hope. Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, Emmylou Harris' Red Dirt Girl, Laura Cantrell's Not The Tremblin' Kind, Amy Allison's Sad Girl, Casey Chambers' The Captain and, particularly, Lucinda Williams', incredible Essence are wonderful records. They are as far from the country mainstream as Gram Parsons was when he was doing his best work. It is a lot easier to drown in the mainstream.
The massive success of the 0 Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack is introducing a lot a people to the amazing voices still to be found in the traditional forms such as bluegrass and country gospel. Anything that causes people to hear more of Suzanne Cox or Ralph Stanley has got to be great.
You are on record as a devotee of George Jones. How do you rate him alongside other vocal greats like Frank Sinatra?
George Jones, at his best, is working at the same level of distinctive finesse and beauty as Sinatra or Billie Holiday. The same is true of Merle Haggard. I never really think of George Jones singing "country music". He sings "George Jones" songs, if you know what I mean.
Have you ever considered doing another album collection like Almost Blue?
I was probably twenty years too young to sing most of the songs on Almost Blue. I was just in that mood. Or perhaps I was just in "a mood". I think that if (I) were in a similar frame of mind again, I'd probably write all the songs myself, which is what I started out to do on the album King of America. I wouldn't go to other people's songs unless I was playing live. I've been known to spend entire soundchecks playing obscure George Jones, Starday sides and Conway Twitty songs.
I did Ricky Skaggs' Monday Night Country Music Television programme from the Ryman with George Jones a few years ago - a scary, twenty years after we cut, my song, Stranger in the House for George's My Special Friends album. On the T.V. show there was an "Unplugged"-style segment where we tried to coax Jones to reminisce about his really early records. Ricky reminded George that I had cut Good Year for the Roses and asked me to sing a few bars. I then went on into Big Fool of the Year and George looked astounded that anyone from my background knew that song. I know a lot of those old songs, so who knows where it will end?
Like a lot of us you turned toward country to investigate its sources after The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, where did you go to from there?
I really just went back to the sources; Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle Haggard and the Louvins, in particular. If I'm in the mood, I can sing all the verses of Knoxville Girl. The process was repeated with Gram Parsons solo albums and even the early Emmylou Harris records. My recording of Too Far Gone had more to do with the versions by Emmylou and the one by Bobby Bland than the original by Tammy Wynette. At our first un-issued, trial session in Nashville, prior to Almost Blue, we cut the Patsy Cline/Loretta Lynn hit He's Got You in an r'n'b arrangement with Pete Drake on steel guitar. It's just a question of mixing up the music.
Once I realised that the Everleys came from the Louvins, the Delmores and the Stanley Brothers I was away down the trail. Around 1970, The Band, The Basement Tapes songs and the Grateful Dead, on the albums Workingmen's Dead and American Beauty, gave a deeper sense of older American music (what is now sometimes called "Americana"). Garcia played bluegrass and that made me curious. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band triple album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken introduced me to Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. That was a revolutionary record, these longhair musician playing with the likes of Vassar Clements. Mother Maybelle Carter was also on that album and that was the start of listening to the Carter Family. I discovered Hoagy Carmichael and Jimmy Rodgers around that time. Some people wouldn't call Hoagy Carmichael "country" but now I think of him as a country poet right in there with Jimmy Rodgers, Dock Boggs and Mose Allison.
Johnny Cash had the occasional hit single in England when I was growing up but they didn't give any sense of him as a great songwriter. When I heard the International Submarine Band version of I Still Miss Someone, I had to hear the original and one thing led to another. Little did I know that he would become my pal's father-in-law and we'd end up recording together in a basement in Shepherd's Bush! We cut a rare George Jones' composition, We Ought To Be Ashamed, on St. Stephen's Day I979 or I980 (I forget which) at the same session as he did Nick Lowe's Without Love (it's on the album Highway Patrolman). It was a vocal match on a par with that on Dylan's Girl of the North Country from Nashville Skyline and was mercifully never issued - although it was a gas to sing with the man. I think Johnny's version of Nick's The Beast in Me is one of his great later recordings. He also did a pretty fine job on my tune, Hidden Shame, so you can never tell where records will lead you.
Later on, I got into Webb Pierce, Stonewall Jackson, Ray Price, Buck Owens and Porter Waggoner - "Dolly and the Porter" as it says in Emmylou Harris's Amarillo. When we were in Nashville to record Almost Blue, I recall a girl coming by on skates or a bicycle and joining us up, right there on the spot,
in the Loretta Lynn fan club - probably because I'd been playing her records on some radio rock'n'roll radio station. In those days you could visit the occasional F.M. station and still find Loretta records in their library right next to Captain Beefheart and Groucho Marx singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady. They'd let you play them too!
You were quoted in the advertising campaign for Merle Haggard's latest album, how do you feel about the overall resistance to artists like Merle, Johnny Cash and other veterans?
I remember watching them induct Kitty Wells into the Hall of Fame on T.V. and wondering how the hell it had taken them so long. Columbia Records actually dropped Cash around the time they let Miles Davis go. Further proof that nobody knows anything. The industry didn't always have this acute sense of the value of "classic" artists and records. Still, they don't want any new records from these people. Why would they bother with serious artists when they could be recording the producer's girlfriend?
As a writer would you relate your work to what Hank Williams Snr. was writing?
The only way that I would relate to Hank Williams as a writer is in awe of his economy and vivid emotion. We live in different times and we have admitted to different feelings, just it is hard to use words in the exact way that Lorenz Hart might have done. Having said that, you can do a lot worse than in trying to measure yourself against such masters.
You were featured on the recent Gram Parsons tribute album with your version of Sleepless Nights, do you think today he is underrated or, that because of his death, he has become on icon beyond his actual contribution to the music?
The doomed romantic myth is always playing somewhere in town. The only "icons" I can think of are in Russian churches. I do hear Gram Parson's influence in a lot of singers today (and in the last twenty-five or so years) and I'm glad of that. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be answering these particular questions.
Removed from it's historic and rural roots do you think that Country Music has a valid place in today's musical context?
Maybe "country" music has changed because "the country" has changed. People have different aspirations and need different kinds of song. On the other hand; what's great is great.
Have you ever considered producing or working with a country related artist, a Coward Brothers album perhaps?
The Coward Brothers are probably edging toward their fourth (or is it their fifth?) comeback tour. They are considering a Mini-Series of their life story as we speak. Perhaps for the Hallmark channel or the PAX network.
Once again, I'd say "one thing leads to another". Friends may tip you off to a new artist. Sometimes a cover or a title may just appeal. I picked up Laura Cantrell's album because I liked the title, then I saw that she had covered Amy Allison's The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter. I thought "this girl's got taste" and she turned out to be a great singer and writer.
Interview by Steve Rapid