NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Thanks to his one and only country music album, Elvis Costello knows what it's like to be Engelbert Humperdinck. "There I am (at the supermarket) with the fish-fingers and there's some woman saying what a great romantic sound it was, and really giving me the twinkle," Costello said.
"It was really funny, 'cause I never would be with the music I wrote myself, but suddenly, I was kind of a minor heartthrob for about 20 minutes."
Costello and his band, The Attractions, recorded and partied hard in Nashville for 10 days in 1981, resulting in Almost Blue, an album that stands in stark contrast to the pop masterpieces Trust and Armed Forces that preceded it.
It is Costello's lowest-selling album in the United States by a longshot, and has just been reissued here as part of a reissue program by Rykodisc.
"Originally, it was a real 'I am depressed and I'm gonna make you depressed' album," Costello said in an interview from his London office.
It evolved into a country album, complete with production by Nashville Sound purveyor Billy Sherrill, whose penchant for sugary strings made him an odd choice for a guy who learned his country music from listening to the Byrds and Gram Parsons.
'I suppose a slightly wiser, older person .might have maybe gone with Cowboy Jack Clement or somebody like that who's a little closer to the rawer part of music," Costello said. But I just didn't know that then, and it was a great adventure."
Adding to the whole shebang was an English documentary film crew and an ongoing battle of cultures wherein the limey band and good ‘ol boy crew struggled to unnerve each other.
“We didn’t see much sleep the whole time we were there,” Costello recalls. “We had a pretty wild time away from the studio, and we got ourselves pretty much in the frame of mind of most of those sad songs by the time the day came around.”
Costello says Sherrill, writer of classic country songs such as “Stand by Your Man,” called him “Elvis Costellar,” and struck a disinterested pose to the recording sessions. He talked more about his love of guns and speedboats than music during the “Almost Blue” sessions. At one point in the British “South Bank Show” documentary, Sherrill says, “I hope it’s a hit, I could get another boat!”
“The engineer said to me that if Billy had really been disinterested in what we were doing he would have listened to the recording session from his office,” Costello said , “ ’cause he had an intercom and sometimes he would mix over the intercom and just make suggestions.”
For their part, Costello and The Attractions played punkish versions of country standards. One of those, a furious version of the Hank Williams Sr. classic “Why Don’t You Love Me,” is the first song on Almost Blue.
But what got the attention of some women was Costello’s crooning, backed by Sherrill’s trademark swirling strings, on such standards as “A Good Year For The Roses.” That George Jones remake made it to No. 6 on the British charts, pushing the “Almost Blue” album to Top 10 status.
“I do believe that some of the best records he’s [Sherrill] produced were because the very, very sugary backings kind of rub up against the real truthfulness of the singing.” Costello said “Now maybe I was setting myself a task beyond my capabilities as a singer to pull that off to the same extent that a Charlie Rich or a George Jones could do, but that was the thinking.”
Costello gets a country music video cable channel in England, but says he is impressed with virtually nothing on it but Pam Tillis.
“There’s an awful lot of that hairdryer music,” Costello said. “That blow-dried stuff with those guys with funny beards that are shaved like halfway up their neck… It seems a long way from George Jones. There’s no wildness, there’s no chaos.
“It seems like the standard of songwriting has really plummeted.”
The country songs that Costello chose to record reflect his tastes: Merle Haggard, George Jones, Gram Parsons, Charlie Rich and Loretta Lynn. In keeping with the downcast theme, many of the songs deal with loneliness, despair or drowning sorrows with drink.
“It was going to be the sort of a record for people who live alone” Costello said. “I think in some ways it still has that function.