What was a New Wave limey doing on HBO's Tribute to George Jones (the king of country) this past summer? Emmylou Harris must have asked herself the same question. "And now, a fan of George Jones, Elvis Costello," she announced, looking perplexed as a decidedly paunchy Elvis hidden under a 10-gallon hat took centerstage to lead the redoubtable Attractions through three sizzling country classics, after which Jones himself joined Elvis for "Stranger in the House," their duet from Jones' 1979 LP My Very Special Guests.
It's no secret to Elvis fans that the man loves country music, for he has revealed his penchant for the genre on Get Happy! in "Motel Matches," on Trust in "Different Finger," and on his most recent tour in "He's Got You," (a gender change of the old Patsy Kline hit). But Almost Blue, Elvis' latest release, contains no original songs, consisting entirely of country music which draws inspiration (and material) from such giants as George Jones, Hank Williams, and Charlie Rich. It must be emphasized that this music is true country, not the watered-down pop/schlock imitation perpetrated by such inferior lightweights as Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbit.
Last May Elvis spent two weeks recording in the country music capital of the world, getting the "Nashville treatment": strings, background singers, pedal steel guitar and violin sessionmen, all under the expert supervision of a slick producer, Billy Sherrill. It's a different sound for Elvis, but it works.
The best cut is Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," which features a rollicking Bruce Thomas bass line topped with the hottest piano licks this side of Jerry Lee Lewis (Steve Nieve is perhaps the finest rock pianist playing today). But there are only two other rockabilly songs, and they are not the standouts here. It is the straight country that is the most engaging and consistently top-notch, whether it's the down-home swing of "Success" or the honky-tonk shuffle of "Sittin' and Thinkin." To be sure, the limitations of Elvis husky vocals prevent the melodies from soaring to their originally intended heights, but he has the right spirit —that blend of sincerity and corn which borders on schlock without falling into it — and that's what counts.
This music has limited appeal, but so does most good country music. When Elvis sings, '"To take a chance on losing you is such a silly thing to do," (in the beautiful ballad "How Much I lied") he could be addressing his rock audience as well as his lover. But it isn't silly at all. As an Elvis album, Almost Blue is one of his best. As a country record, it's almost perfect.