It's an uncontested fact: Elvis Costello is one of the most versatile singer-songwriters in popular music.
In the past six years, Costello has released a Gershwin-style pop record, an orchestral suite, a composition-centric concept record, a live "rock 'n' jazz" album, and a couple of genre-defying collaborative efforts (with Allen Toussaint and Jenny Lewis).
Now comes his latest full-length release, Secret, the Profane and Sugarcane, which some are calling bluegrass.
Even if he's not crazy about that description.
"It's not a bluegrass record," said Costello, who will headline the second night of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on Friday.
"It's a ballad record. These are story songs — a lot of which are written in character."
Secret, the Profane and Sugarcane is "an acoustic record," according to Costello — a record that throws a couple of his new songs together with some older material (released and unreleased) and strains it all through T-Bone Burnett's old-timey filter. While Costello fans have connected with his many projects to varying degrees, many are finding solace in Secret, which debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 chart last week — the artist's highest debut in nearly 30 years (since 1980's Get Happy).
Costello's voice — accented by the playing of bluegrass greats Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton, Jeff Taylor and Dennis Crouch — and the instrumentation sound like they belong together.
Costello appears so natural amid the sparse strumming of the single "Complicated Shadows" (an old Costello track) and the emotive group playing of "Red Cotton" (from "The Secret Songs," his unfinished commission for the Royal Danish Opera).
"I wanted to make an acoustic record, and I've been looking for a reason to record one with my pal, T-Bone," Costello said. "We'd done two records before, and we're always in contact, writing now and again, and I felt I had a number of songs that would lend themselves to what we had talked about — which was gathering a group of musicians and making something like this."
While Costello steers the record, the songs' moods are defined by Douglas's Dobro, Duncan's fiddle, Compton's mandolin, Taylor's accordion, Crouch's double bass, Burnett's production and Jim Lauderdale's backup vocals. Their presence is felt, and Costello has enjoyed working with the guys — and their instruments.
"They're beautiful sounds," he said. "I've worked with the violin in lots of different instances, string quartets and Irish folk musicians, but the specific players on this record — Jerry Douglas is a master musician, and they all are.
"What I love about their playing is that, because they're masters, they know when not to play. They know when to stay out and when to step in — the role of the double bass and mandolin, in terms of driving the music and decorating it. Mike Compton is a serious player, and listen to him on 'I Dreamed of My Old Lover,' and it's his playing that lights the whole song up."
Costello and his crew recorded all 13 songs — including a cover of "Changing Partners," made famous by Bing Crosby — in only three days. Outside of an overdubbed electric guitar, everything happened as you hear it, Costello said.
"It was just us performing in a semi-circle," he said. " 'Complicated Shadows' came pretty fast. I looked at some of these slightly more intricate songs — but I don't think anything went past four takes — most took on first or second take. And that's the way all recording used to be. I don't understand what's so difficult about it. Didn't people just go into a room and play music, and that would be the record?
"Obviously if you're making an experimental record juxtaposing two sounds that don't want to agree, that's another recording, and I've made those records myself: Trying to marry things together that would otherwise never exist together. The reward of playing like this is self-evident — the instant connection to the song and the tangible feeling of the other instruments."
For Costello, much of the fun in this project was picking the right songs. And that process is far from over. Costello and the Sugarcanes, as his new bandmates are calling themselves, will focus on the songs from the record in live shows, but they'll also include other tunes of varying familiarity.
"Every so often, there will be a song that people recognize — maybe they'll see that the song contains in it something that allows it to be played by these instruments really vividly," Costello said. "It's not just a magic trick. It requires a bit of rethinking. I'm not going with the style of the song so much as the feeling of the song.
"Because these songs on this record were written over a wide period and brought into one compendium by the sonic approach and instrumental approach, the same can be said about other songs now. It'll be quite intriguing, making for some interesting juxtapositions. With (1995's) King of America, people would expect that — as it's the first record of mine to feature acoustic instruments, and it's the first record I worked with T-Bone on. But there will be other songs from further afield."