To some, Elvis Costello doing cover versions' of Merle Haggard and Gram Parson tunes sounds as ridiculous as Linda Ronstadt doing Elvis Costello renditions.
Fact is, Costello has always been a great country singer. He and country songwriter Rodney Crowell (and Joe Ely and Hank Williams Jr.) are artists more interested in preserving country music roots than making a fast buck.
Costello's previous dabbles into country ("Different Finger" from his Trust LP; and "Stranger in the House" from Taking Liberties), sounded great sandwiched between his usual R&B/pop fare.
But Almost Blue, is totally country. No pop-soul relief is offered, and the listener is forced to take Costello on his own terms.
Almost Blue is good, but not the masterpiece it could have been. All the songs are remakes of country tunes. No Costello originals are included here, which is a shame. Costello is an excellent songwriter with a penchant for the melancholy and caustic — two important country lyric elements.
Still, the songs Costello selected are revised well. Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" is given a rocking face-lift, while the Burnette Brother's "Honey Hush" retains all the smoke of the original.
A popular country music songwriter, Rodney Crowell has written tunes for Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and his wife, Rosanne Cash (Johnny Cash's daughter). Despite the misleading eponymous title, this is his third release.
The work of a country music craftsman, Crowell's introspective lyrics and sensuous melodies conjure images of old Nashville.
Yet the album's production speaks of Los Angeles professionalism. From the bayou wonder of "Stars on the Water" to the despairing "She Ain't Goin' Nowhere," Crowell covers the entire emotional spectrum, inducing smiles and tears.
These artists have written (in Costello's case, revised), songs rife with classic country music sentiment. In these days of glossy country-pop, some might find both refreshingly rebellious.