Who da thunk it? Four years ago when Elvis Costello surfaced in England as an angry, neurotically brilliant rock and roller, no one with any trace of sanity would have ever imagined that he would be, four years later, a country musician, and a traditionalist at that.
Costello showed very little inkling toward country music through his earliest work. But in the late seventies, he began to write a few tunes of a distinctly country style. Songs like "Radio Sweetheart" recorded by Carlene Carter (of the famous Carter-Cash family) and "Stranger In The House" showed Costello had a feeling and talent for country music
In 1979 Elvis appeared on an album called George Jones, My Very Special Guests. Also appearing on this disc were such country heavyweights as Tammy Wynette, Johnny Paycheck, Willie Nelson, Emmy Lou Harris and Waylon Jennings, all singing duets with country music's legendary talent and had boy, George Jones. Costello's duet with George was Elvis's composition 'Stranger In The House,' which made a mild dent in the country charts.
Elvis Costello also appeared on a cable TV special last summer, once again with Jones, called George Jones With His Very Special Friends. Many of the same country luminaries appeared, but in my prejudiced opinion Costello's segment was the highlight.
Elvis sang two old country favorites: "She's Got You" by Patsy Cline, and "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" by Merle Haggard, and was joined by George Jones for a pair of duets. Seeing these two men from such diverse backgrounds, in musical harmony on stage, was quite a moment.
About the same time over the summer came word that Costello was going to release an album of solely country music. This was no surprise. The surprise was the announcement that there would be no original material from one of the most prolific songwriter's around.
Almost Blue, Elvis's country album, was released about a week ago. Costello fans shouldn't be distressed. Although it's country, it's still very distinctively Elvis, and to Costello's non-wavering admirers that's all that's important.
But is this a good country album? As only a casual (but appreciative) country listener, it would be very presumptuous of me to make a judgment. So I asked a friend of mine who programs a local country station what he thought about Almost Blue.
I asked Bob Mitchell, music director at KFRY, what he thought of Almost Blue. Mitchell said "Outstanding, just really, really excellent. It's really great that he got Billy Sherill to produce the record. Elvis has always said George Jones was one of his idols, and that gave he and Sherill a reference point. And Billy Sherill is the type of person who if he goes to the people at Billboard (magazine) and says 'this one's a hit', they believe it."
Mitchell said he would definitely program three songs into KFRY's rotation, "Too Far Gone," "Sittin' and Thinkin" and "A Good Year For The Roses."
"I really like the slow stuff," said Mitchell. "It's really good country, but I don't like the fast stuff as much on a couple things.
"His voice has that unique quality, a cry in his voice, that's just right for country. The only reason he might not break big is he hasn't paid his dues, and country people want you to pay dues," he said
But as an unabashed Costello fan, I enjoyed Almost Blue. I didn't particularly like a couple of song choices, particularly "So Blue" by Flying Burrito Brother Gram Parsons, and also "Why Don't You Love Me."
Costello can write songs better than these two numbers at the slightest inspiration, which leads me to another complaint. Why would Costello, who even his detractors readily admit is a great songwriter, not write songs for his own records? Costello not writing songs is like the pope not saying prayers, like Julius Erving not playing basketball and like Ronald McDonald not selling hamburgers. It's simply wrong.
The only logical reason I can construe is that Elvis wanted to get off to a good start with the country crowd and felt the best way to do so would be to remake songs written by established country artists. And most of these songs are excellent, especially "A Good Year For The Roses," the rollicking "Honey Hush," "Success" and Merle Haggard's bouncy lament, "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down."
Costello's band, The Attractions, is paced by a pure and ever-increasing genius on keyboards named Steve Neive. Neive tinkles, bangs and rumbles his way through this album like a young, more technically adept Jerry Lee Lewis.
Doobie Brother John McFee is the special guest on Almost Blue. McFee's vast guitar talent is smothered in the homogenized sound of the Doobie Brothers, but he gets to let loose on some fancy steel and lead guitar on this record, as he did for years with an unfortunately ignored band called Clover. (A little known fact is that Clover was the back-up band on Costello's debut album My Aim Is True.)
Aside from a few problems, Costello's foray into country music Seems to be an artistically successful one Whether he becomes a big country star remains to be seen. Thanks to George Jones, he already has one foot in the ranchhouse door. Because, as a country music lover once told me, "If old George Jones likes the little weasel, he must be all right."