The George Jones Country Special is about the last place you would expect to find Elvis Costello. London, Costello's breeding ground and nucleus of the latest British invasion, and Nashville, capital of the country and western scene, occupy opposite ends of the musical spectrum.
Yet there he was, rubbing elbows with the likes of Tanya Tucker, Waylon Jennings and Emmy Lou Harris. Moreover, he apparently was quite comfortable among his new pals. At times Elvis appeared downright chummy, matching Jones' southern amiability with all the grace and ease of a seasoned Hee-Haw veteran.
Costello's performance consisted of four songs, interestingly the longest time allotted to any of the musicians except Jones. Included in the country mini-set were "I Got the Picture," "A Good Year for the Roses" and "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," the last a good-humored dig at Jones, who was making a comeback following a dramatic and successful battle against alcoholism.
While rumors of Costello's Nashville connection had been floating around for months, his appearance on the summer Home Box Office special was the first piece of hard evidence most Elvis fans had that he was shifting gears. And not just musically: The warm, almost playful Elvis that showed up for the Jones tribute was a far cry from the "Prince Charmless" fans had come to expect.
If any doubt concerning Costello's new musical direction remained, it was dissolved by last week's arrival of Almost Blue, a brand new album from Costello. All 12 songs, which were recorded in Nashville this past May, are country and western classics, written by, such legends as Hank Williams, Charlie Rich and Merle Haggard, names familiar even to rock and roll fans.
It is curious that Costello, who has demonstrated his capacity to write songs in many different styles, country included (Taking Liberty's "Stranger in the House"), puts his pen aside for the entirety of Almost Blue. Over the past five years he has been one of the most prolific songwriters in rock and roll. Six albums, beginning with the 1977 release of My Aim Is True, have yielded 92 Costello songs, more songs than many musicians can hope to create in a lifetime.
Emotionally, Costello has covered miles of territory since the first album. In the old days a deep fury seemed to be consuming him from the inside out. "I'm a menace," Elvis declared in a 1978 Newsweek interview. "I'm not even sure what I want, but that's not the point — it's that I want it now. I'm up for a fight."
Both in and out of the studio Costello lashed out at the world around him.
His songs bit into everything from the music industry ("Radio, Radio"), to the darker side of sexual relationships ("Sneaky Feelings"), to religion ("Waiting for the End of the World"). "Mystery Dance," for example, a cut from My Aim Is True, presented a different perspective on a love affair:
Well I remember when the lights went out,
And I was trying to make it look like it was never in doubt
She thought that I knew,
And I thought that she knew,
So both of us was willing,
But we didn't know how to do it
Outside the studio, Costello garnered an even more notorious reputation. Journalists, recording company executives and fellow musicians found Elvis to be the picture of belligerence. Sometimes even his own fans became the object of his resentment. Once, Costello, in the middle of a concert, yanked out the powerlines feeding the amplifiers on one side of the stage, merely because fans on that side of the auditorium sat in their chairs, rather than stand as requested by Costello. Often he would play for only 45 minutes before exiting, leaving behind fans who had waited hours or even days for tickets.
This kind of behavior from Elvis is rare these days. At the Chapel Hill concert last January, for example, he seemed to go out of his way to play the role of gracious performer. He remained on stage for more than an hour and a half — a marathon by Costello standards — before returning to crank out no less than six encores. The good behavior was all the more puzzling considering how Chapel Hill, known to many for its preppie, disinfected look, embodies everything Costello loathes about American society.
In the old days it was plain that something was eating Costello up. For this reason alone it was easy to categorize him, back in 1977 and 1978, as a punk. At the time the Sex Pistols and their wards, the Clash, were burning up England with a sound inspired by the anger, outrage and desperation of Britain's youth. Since Costello was also young, British and angry, he fit the mold perfectly. He also had the arrogance — take the name Elvis for yourself in the music business (Costello was born Declan Patrick McManus) and you better have big plans. Finally, throw in the weird suit, the knock-kneed stance, the heavy black glasses, and the theory was airtight.
But the music itself seemed different. Although the live sound was similar to that of the punks — very loud, with the songs torn through at a ferocious pace — the album sound was not My Aim Is True is a collage of rock and roll styles from the '50s and '60s; it was not until the second album, This Year's Model, that Costello began to hone a sound all his own. He would later polish and add to his style on Armed Forces, Get Happy! and Trust, his third, fourth and sixth albums, respectively.
Costello still writes about the old days. One of Trust's best songs, "Watch Your Step," presents a flashback to the lean years:
Watch who, knocking on your front door,
Now you know that they're watching,
What are you waiting for?
Think you're young and original —
Get out before...
The quality of Almost Blue aside, there is no denying that two or three years ago Elvis Costello could never have found the time to dabble in country music. Back then there was an urgent purpose, a cause that could not be put off. "I'm chipping away at a certain attitude that has a stranglehold on music," Elvis said in the Newsweek interview. "Take a band like Boston. Rock and roll is about sex, and they might as well be eunuchs. They're just a wet dream for an accountant."
Apparently Costello has discovered how tiresome being mean for great lengths of time can be. Two years ago the thought of him in Nashville swapping jokes and compliments with an all-star country lineup was preposterous; the idea of him feeling personally secure enough to play with an entirely different genre
of music, impossible. Don't, however, say that Elvis has matured, as Tom Snyder suggested earlier this year during an interview on the Tomorrow show. "I'm not in the business to mature," was the curt response. "It sounds like some sort of cheese."