Almost Blue (2004) liner notes

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Almost Blue

Elvis Costello

March 2004. Entering my dressing room at the Ryman Auditorium, I find a card attached to a gift basket wrapped in cellophane. Tearing open the envelope, I read:

"Have a wonderful show at the Ryman. Sorry we can't be there. Regards. George and Nancy Jones."

I pull out the foil-covered bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling apple juice from amidst the fruit and fancies. Things have surely changed…

My first trip to Nashville in 1978 had not been such a sober affair. Columbia A&R man Gregg Geller had forwarded a copy of "Stranger In The House" — an "outtake" removed from My Aim Is True because it was "too country" — to producer Billy Sherrill. Soon I received news that I had been invited to duet with George Jones on a version of the very song I had written with him in mind while still working in an office. As if this wasn't a weird enough dream come true, I would be appearing in the company of everyone from Willie Nelson to the Staples Singers on an album entitled My Special Friends. George and I had never met.

I arrived in town in time to buy a cowboy shirt with horses on the shoulders and stayed in a hotel overlooking the guitar-shaped swimming pool of Webb Pierce's show-house. In the evening I was taken to see another Columbia act performing material from his upcoming album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and met Bruce Springsteen for the first time. I imagine he thought I was wearing some kind of disguise. The record company were excellent hosts, also introducing me to Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell and to a couple of fine and wild musicians who played with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

The session itself was something of an anticlimax. Mr. Jones did not show up. Rumour had it that he was down in Florence Alabama, and couldn't come into the state, as one of his more famous ex's was looking for alimony. But maybe they told me this just to give me a taste of the Nashville soap opera mythology and make me feel better about making the trip in vain.

The session then took an odd turn. Guild guitars had shipped a brand-new instrument to me, seeking an endorsement. It was standing in a cardboard packing case against the studio wall. Mr. Sherrill asked me, "Do you pick, son?" He said he was thinking of replacing the steel guitar solo on the cut. I asked him who the player was, and he replied: "Pete Drake." I was horrified that he would consider erasing the work of this legendary musician to accommodate my twanging, but that is how I came to make my debut as a Nashville session player.

George's absence from my first visit gave rise to the rumour that our vocals on "Stranger In The House" were recorded at separate sessions. In fact in the middle of our 1979 tour of America, we returned to Nashville and I was able to complete the track side by side with George. I can't say I was much of a vocal match for Mr. Jones at the time, but we do have the pictures to prove that the session did take place.

It would be nearly two years before I returned to Nashville. Much had happened to me in that time — from scandal to disgrace, near-divorce, and the end of something like pop-stardom. We were touring the U.S. playing songs from our latest release, Trust. It included a country-style ballad about infidelity, written when I was 20 years old. It was called "Different Finger." Now I had developed the notion that I might better express my feelings through other people's words and music. Country ballads suited my blue mood most of all.

We stopped into Columbia Studio B (home of Stand By Your Man, Behind Closed Doors and Blonde On Blonde) and cut an R&B version of Hank Cochran's "He's Got You" first made famous by Patsy Cline, although I had learned it from the Loretta Lynn remake. We also cut Bobby "Blue" Bland's hit "I'll Take Care Of You," as I was thinking that the next record might include all manner of blue songs. The steel player on the session was once again Pete Drake. He started out playing rather cautiously, obviously a little bewildered by our take on country music. Knowing little about the working of the steel guitar, I asked why he restricted his playing to only one of the twin necks of his instrument. He replied, "Oh you want me to play on the fun neck." From there on he was flying.

It wasn't the first time I'd turned to country music in the face of disenchantment. In February 1979 I had been nominated for a Grammy as "Best New Artist." Rather than attend the ceremony, I had elected to play a country music set at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. While Chic and I lost out to "Boogie Oogie Oogie" by A Taste Of Honey, The Attractions and I plus our pal (and My Aim Is True guitarist and steel-player) John McFee were charging through a recent George Jones hit, "If I Could Put Them All Together (I'd Have You)," and playing a version of Leon Payne's "Psycho."

Now obviously, I didn't grow up listening to country music. Chart successes tended to be of either the cloyingly sentimental ballads or novelty record variety. This all changed when I heard Sweethearts Of The Rodeo. Truthfully, as a fan of the Byrds at their most adventurous, I had actually passed this album up at first simply because it was country. I mean "country" was Ringo singing "Act Naturally," right? When I finally picked up the album in a Liverpool secondhand shop in 1970, I realized my mistake. I loved the songs Gram Parsons contributed to the group, even though by this time he had left both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. When I tracked down The Gilded Palace Of Sin, everything started to fall into place.

Not only did these records illustrate that there was more soul to Johnny Cash than you could get from a hit like "A Boy Named Sue," but it also made me curious about the original version of the songs written by Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers.

Gram Parsons' own original songs were fragile and often strangely beautiful, full of dark longing and foreboding, but to my surprise The Gilded Palace also included two Dan Penn songs, "The Dark End Of The Street" and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," the second of which I already knew from my favorite R&B record, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You.

The odd collision of American musical threads could be found in the contemporary recordings of both the Grateful Dead and The Band. It was old and new at the same time. However, when Gram Parsons' solo records, G.P. and Grievous Angel, found their way into England, they were full of wonderful duets with Emmylou Harris and much more traditional-sounding material backed by several members of Elvis Presley's T.C.B. band, such as James Burton and Glen D. Hardin.

In 1986 I did several sessions for King Of America with James, Glen D., Jerry Scheff, and Ron Tutt. It was assumed that I wanted then because they played with The King, but actually I was more impressed that most of them played on the Gram Parsons albums.

Following Gram Parson's early death, I turned to the solo recordings of Emmylou Harris. It was through her rendition that I first truly appreciated the soul in Bobby Sherrill's "Too Far Gone." It might sound like heresy, but after hearing Bobby "Blue" Bland's take on the song, I felt that Tammy Wynette's original came in a distant third place.

Oddly enough my next country music recording was made not in Nashville, but in Shepherd's Bush in West London. My pal (and producer of my first five albums) Nick Lowe could be said to have married into country music aristocracy when he wed Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle of the legendary Carter Family. While visiting the newlyweds in the last days of 1979, his stepfather-in-law had called a recording session for Christmas day. After a rebellion by the wives and families of the prospective backing musicians, the session was rescheduled for the Feast of St. Stephen.

I arrived at Nick's and C.C.'s discreet address, a four-story Victorian terrace house that contained the Am-Pro Recording studio on the ground floor. As I entered the hallway from the garden path, the door to the "front parlour," which h now housed the recording room, swung open and the frame was filled by a familiar figure greeting: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."

This story would be so much better if I could say that we went on to cut a great track together. Unfortunately, our voices were somewhat mismatched. I sounded like a whimpering schoolgirl next to John. Nevertheless, our intentions were good. We cut a rare George Jones composition to send to Nashville in lieu of a get-well card, as George had been suffering some bad health at that time. "We Ought To Be Ashamed" is really a Johnny Cash gospel record with someone making the occasional spirited intervention in the background. Although the track is not exactly either artist's most shining hour, I'm glad that it has finally found the way off the shelf. Nick Lowe's "Without Love" was also cut at the same session (although I didn't play on it) and was later included on Columbia's The Essential Johnny Cash, so the session wasn't a complete washout.

Shortly before beginning this album, I traveled to Los Angeles to take part in a cable television special celebrating the long delayed release of George Jones' My Special Friends album. After arriving from London, I awoke to find my neck swelling up alarmingly, and a trip to the doctor quickly confirmed a case of the mumps. As the illness only marred my looks and didn't really inhibit my singing, I was determined to take this opportunity to perform onstage with George Jones. I had even assembled a special band for the event with a rhythm section of Pete Thomas and Nick Lowe, John McFee on steel guitar and John Hiatt joining us on guitar and vocals.

Needles to say I was quarantined from most of the performers and had to watch Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings, and Emmylou Harris rehearse with George from a distance. Having had the illness in childhood, George had no trouble inviting me to the trailer in the parking lot that doubled as his dressing room. I took the opportunity to tell George of my upcoming plans to record several songs that he had made famous. I mentioned how much I loved "The Window Up Above," although I told him that I couldn't possibly tackle that one, and he confirmed it by singing a few glorious unaccompanied measures of the tune. Just then a boisterous Tanya Tucker burst through the door and our song session came to an abrupt end.

By the time I first arrived in Nashville to record this album, my country music collection contained the accumulated swag of five U.S. tours with many spare suitcases being bought to carry home hordes of thrift store vinyl. My tastes were running to Stonewall Jackson, Ray Price, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, and Janis Martin. I had a shelf full of George Jones albums on Starday, Mercury, and recent releases on Epic. I was working my way through everything by Charlie Rich from Sun through Smash to Epic, a bunch of great Johnny Cash songs, Jerry Lee Lewis' country sides on Mercury, early Willie Nelson songs and great albums like Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, Patsy Cline, anything by Loretta Lynn, and the only Hank Williams that I knew existed, the one the now call "Senior."

When I went to Billy Sherrill's office to discuss the repertoire, there was a big dustbin liner sitting on his desk. He tipped out the contents to reveal a stash of cassettes submitted by publishing houses from all over town. I suppose this was standard practice for a new artist coming to record, but the songs ranged all the way from the lame to the downright bizarre. Hill and Range submitted "Heartbreak Hotel" with all apparent seriousness. Best of all was an early Willie Nelson demo of a song called "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye" (unreleased until the Teatro album), a homicidal ballad that contained the chilling lines: "The flesh around your neck is pale/Indented by my fingernail." I told Billy that I already had all the songs we needed.

The South Bank Show documentary of the making of this album contains a wonderful sequence in which Billy Sherrill is questioned about my song choices while driving his speedboat. He admits that he is "worn out on" a lot of the songs (he had engineered the Sun version of Charlie Rich's "Sittin' And Thinkin'" and produced the Epic remake in the early ‘70s), but he was willing to see what we could do with them … "unless we write a new one." He certainly took extra special interest in his own composition "Too Far Gone," cajoling me to attempt the "spoken" second verse with the timeless advice: "There isn't a woman in the world who ain't a fool for a talking bit."

Some people expressed surprise that I didn't approach a wilder individual to produce the record, someone like Cowboy Jack Clement, but I had genuine love for the tension between the emotion of the singer and the smooth backing of Bobby Sherrill recordings. At the time, I didn't know that Billy had started out as a saxophonist in a Memphis R&B band, but he did have something of a Jerry Lee look about him, with his slicked-back blonde hair and penetrating stare. At any rate, we had been warned, if he lost interest in the session he might retreat to his office and direct operations over his intercom.

Another unexpected bout of "childhood" illness had meant that we had rehearsed 30 or so songs with Paul "Bassman" Riley filling in for Bruce Thomas. Paul had been Pete Thomas' rhythm partner in Chilli Willi and passed on my request to assemble a band in London shortly before the formation of The Attractions. Things got so close to the deadline that Paul actually traveled to Nashville before Bruce made a timely recovery.

My memory of the session is that they were not so much drunken rampages as tremendously hungover. Most of the mischief and misbehaviour went on after dark. This is not to say that there was no alcohol in the studio; on one occasion I picked up a Styrofoam cup believing it contained some very necessary black coffee, only to find that one of the producers had been steadily sipping bourbon all afternoon, not that anything about his demeanour would have given any indication of the fact.

I had previously described this album as having been recorded when "I was trying to rid the world of alcohol by drinking it." I think it is quite possible to detect alcohol on the breath of the singer on the outtake version of a song made famous by Conway Twitty. It was appropriately called "Darling, You Know I Wouldn't Lie." Booze was certainly in my blood and on my mind, and this led to us cutting both Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" and Charlie Rich's "Sittin' And Thinkin'," which begins "I got loaded last night on a bottle of gin," my drink of choice at the time.

The there was the occasion when engineer Ron "Snake" Reynolds and Mr. Sherrill began discussing their brand-new handguns, and one of them (I can no longer recall which) produced a small revolver from his back pocket so that the other could admire the firing mechanism. To my knowledge, Nick Lowe had never come to the studio bearing firearms.

Other than these strange local customs, the sessions proceeded pretty swiftly and uneventfully, at least that is what is the evidence of the session log suggests. We cut far more songs than we needed during our nine-day stay. I plundered my record collection to come up with songs such as Webb Pierce's version of "Wondering," Janis Martin's "Blues Keep Calling," and Ray Price's take on "My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You." Only the last of these was ever in serious contention for inclusion on the album, and many of the songs were not completed vocally or mixed until we returned to England and I went into the studio with Paul Riley.

Obviously, some songs received more careful attention. I had heard Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams" as recorded by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris, but our version really took off from a Jin Records B-side rendition, out of Louisiana, by Tommy McLain. Steve Nieve, who had been absorbing something of Floyd Cramer's style in preparation, came up with the cascading piano line that leads "Brown To Blue" and the rolling accompaniment that defines our arrangement of Gram Parsons' "How Much I Lied."

This guilt-stricken song lay at the heart of my song choices. The previous four years had seen my marriage come close to collapse on several occasions, and despite my relative youth at the time, I really thought I could feel my way through songs like "Colour Of The Blues," "Good Year For The Roses," and another Gram Parsons' song that we renamed "I'm Your Toy." Although my original idea for the record had been to include songs such as "I'll Take Care Of You" and even "Gloomy Sunday," we now stuck entirely to country heartbreak songs.

When the tension got too much for at least one member of The Attractions, there was a small rebellion against the stately pace of the material and we cut a version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?" in an up-tempo arrangement that sounded like Rockpile on amphetamines. As we ended the take Billy Sherrill hit the talk-back button, stating, "Hank's on his way over," and the so as not to be trumped by our sudden burst of energy he suggested that we double-track the entire performance, although I'm unsure whether it made any difference in the final mix. We also cut Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush" but in an arrangement that was taken from the Johnny Burnette Trio version, with John McFee leading the way on electric guitar. The only original composition attempted was an early version of "Tears Before Bedtime" (it later appeared on Imperial Bedroom), which was a country song in lyrical theme if not in music. It was not a successful session.

Some of the above antics and postures might have been a little exaggerated due to the fact that a documentary film crew was capturing most of the proceedings. The director, Peter Carr, had made a documentary about the spectacular fall of the flamboyant football manager Malcolm Allison. You might say that hubris and alcohol play no small part in both films. Peter filmed us in the studio and making a brief but bizarre visit to the seedier bars of Broadway, long before it became the more welcoming tourist destination of today. Most of all he filmed me looking very pale and hungover, talking earnestly about country music.

At a crucial point during the sessions we were at our hotel, "The Close Quarters," during one of our drink-fuelled crises. I was sulking because the band wanted a meeting to air grievances and I had waitresses to chat to. Meanwhile Peter Carr filmed us drunkenly arguing about the merits of Billy Sherrill's production approach. It should have been the most dramatic moment of the film, but the camera operator suffered some sort of malfunction and none of the footage was usable.

Having failed to capture this evening of absurd tension, a confrontation of some kind was needed to conclude the film. Consequently, upon our return to the U.K., we were booked to play a set at the Music Machine in Aberdeen to an audience of surly oil-workers and hard-core country and western fans (Play some Charley Pride!" shouts a very Scottish voice at one stage) who were far from impressed by the news that we had just returned from recording an album in Nashville. Frankly, I don't think they believed a word I was saying and saw us as some washed-up pop act who used to sing a song called "Oliver's Army." The more antagonized they were, the more we reverted to type. We started out playing ballads, but by the end of the set, we were making our feelings pretty plain by playing Charlie Rich's "There Won't Be Anymore" (track 24 on the bonus disc). Our take on "Honey Hush" that night (track 26 on the bonus disc) has the fire we just couldn't get into the studio version.

The video for "Good Year For The Roses" was filmed the day before the Aberdeen gig at Meldrum House, a National Trust listed building that accepted guests. The people running the place were adamant that we couldn't drag an organ or piano into the wooden-floored salon in which we had chosen to film. This meant that Steve Nieve had nothing to play. The only solution was for him to mime the string parts with a violin, an instrument that Steve had probably never held in his life. Only we didn't have a violin. The rather spooking girls miming the backing vocals were the daughters of the music teacher from the local village who lent us the violin that Mr. Nieve is seen playing.

Perhaps the charm or sheer weirdness of this clip helped make a big hit single out of "Roses," reaching No. 6 in the U.K. charts and becoming one of the most played records of the year. I found myself approached in supermarkets by what I then regarded as "older women" who thought that the record was "very romantic."

Nevertheless, when we approached the Royal Albert Hall with a view of staging a concert there, we were obliged to submit our new recording minus the rowdy Hank Williams and Big Joe Turner cuts. The very conservative management had banned rock and roll after an incident at a Frank Zappa concert and maintained a middle-of-the-road booking policy. It was only by this subterfuge that we were able to appear with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

We engaged Robert Kirby — perhaps best known for his wonderful chamber music charts on Nick Drake's recordings — to write arrangements of some of my older songs, such as a very melodramatic version of "Watching The Detectives" and an opening take on "Shot With His Own Gun." Unfortunately, I was in full "more money than sense" mode. When told the price for hiring a 60-piece orchestra, I asked, "How much would 80 cost?" with little idea of what we would do with the extra players. At least we had recorded most of Imperial Bedroom by this time, so we could include Steve Nieve's string arrangement for "Town Cryer" to complement the orchestral accompaniment of songs from Almost Blue.

We had "Evening Dress: Optional" printed on the tickets, and members of the audience responded to this in many imaginative ways. I planned on making an entrance with a hand-held microphone in my brand-new Savile Row suit and bow tie. My father, a man with considerable experience singing in front of a different kind of orchestra, called me on the eve of the concert to ask if I knew what on earth I was getting into. He then gave some invaluable singers' advice: "Never look up to a note, always look down."

Rehearsals were very brief and the concert on 7th January 1982 was a fairly shaky affair, underlining the mutual suspicion of "legit" players and pop musicians at that time. At one point, John McFee took off into the introduction of "Sweet Dreams" without waiting for the conductor's baton and the younger members of the orchestra fell in behind him. However, many of their colleagues resolutely refused to follow without direction from the podium and the song ground to a screeching halt. The concert was even filmed, but we were never able to agree upon a credible fee with the orchestral management for use of more than a few screenings of the version of "I'm Your Toy," the solitary highlight of the concert to be released on record.

Sadly, the appeal of the record did not extend to the U.S., where it was ignored by radio stations of every persuasion. During a short tour we returned to Nashville and were told that we would be performing at the home of the Grand Ole Opry, only to find that the Ryman Auditorium was closed prior to its renovation and we would be playing in the rather soulless Opryland Theatre, part of the themepark complex at the edge of town. I recall coming away with the gift of a pair of complimentary Opryland cuff links with a mandolin design. That was about the best it got in America.

March 2004. After a great evening in the Ryman with Steve Nieve and The Brodsky Quartet, I return to my dressing room to find that my first (and unexpected) visitors are Emmylou Harris and her mother, Eugenia. We had appeared a couple of years previously on the "Concert For A Landmine Free World" tour and Emmylou had been kind enough to learn a new song of mine on which to duet. It is called "Heart Shaped Bruise," and I would say it is my tip of the hat to the composers Felice and Bouldeaux Bryant. Now I can hardly believe my good fortune when she consents to come and record the song for my next record and am very glad that she had liked our closing rendition of "The Dark End Of The Street." It seems that something good is always going to come of passing on some love or curiosity about these songs, wherever they begin and end.

Near the end of the concert I had also played a solo piano version of "I Still Miss Someone." I wanted to acknowledge two departed people who had been kind to us at the end of our Almost Blue adventure.

Our final day in Nashville in 1981, two limousines arrived at our hotel to take us to the Cash residence by a lake in Hendersonville. Being pals with their son-in-law, Nick, seemed to afford us some kind of "friend of the family" status with Johnny and June, and they gave us a very generous welcome to a group of pale and trembling young men.

A banquet table extended through two rooms, enough to accommodate all of our party and several Carter and Cash children and their friends. Naturally, Billy Sherrill arrived by speedboat. Before dinner Johnny took us on a tour of the grounds and property. We visited his writing cabin in the woods, decorated with Native American artifacts and frontier memorabilia, and Johnny called out to peacocks roaming the estate, scaring the hell out of all of us. Then he walked us though an orchard that he had planted on the land where his friend Roy Orbison's house had once stood and been destroyed by fire, claiming the lives of his sons. This was pretty dreadful to hear about when we were in such a fragile state, but it gave us some measure of the man.

Back at the house he walked us through deep plush carpets, past closets full of black stage clothes and countless awards and citations, as we marveled at photographs of Johnny with Presidents and all sorts of notable people. Struggling to find anything coherent to say, my attention fell upon a Sun 45 of "Cry, Cry, Cry" propped up on an old-fashioned display stand. I told Johnny that we had just cut a version of this song of his. He promptly snatched up the disc and signed it: "To Elvis" at the top of the label and "Your friend, Johnny Cash" just under the title and handed it to me. Then June said a very touching prayer of grace and we all sat down to eat.

Needles to say, the minute I got home, I had the record framed and hung it on the wall. A few months later June was visiting London again and I happened to drop in at the Carter/Lowe household. Nick told me that during her stays, she could be found "improving" on the housecleaning of this rather rock and roll abode, while sporting a mink hat or diamond rings worn over rubber household gloves. This sight quickly went into local musician folklore.

On this occasion, she stopped her labours to say that she was mad at "Johnny Cash," as she always seemed to call him. Apparently, the Sun 45 had been a gift to June, long before their romance, when John had been a guest on a radio programme which also featured the Carter Family. The significance of the disc had been forgotten among all the memorabilia. Naturally, I offered to return the memento, but June said I should keep it as it was now dedicated to me.

My final thought is of another concert at the Royal Albert Hall in the late ‘80s, where Nick Lowe and I both made guest appearances with Johnny and the Carter Family. Having joined Johnny to sing "The Big Light" a couple of nights earlier during his surprise appearance at a Carter Family show at the Mean Fiddler club, I repeated the duet in the big hall. Finally, we were all called up for the finale of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." During one of the solos, June sidled up to me and said, "You take the next verse." I replied, "I can't. You've already sung all the verses I know." June smiled and said, "Make one up." So I did. When one of The Carter Family tells you to make up a verse of an old song, you just obey.

— Elvis Costello


Almost Blue liner notes (2004)

Elvis Costello's liner notes for the 2004 Rhino/Edsel reissue of Almost Blue.


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