Elvis goes to Nashville … Has a certain ring about it, eh? The very idea seems to summon up images of a pilgrimage, and the fact that it's already happened once before — when Elvis Presley hit Nashville in 1955 — makes Elvis Costello's country sojourn on Almost Blue a provocative proposition.
Country fans may find it a surprise for new wave's top flight penman to cut an album of non-originals in mostly straight country dress (they were forewarned on George Jones' My Very Special Guests collection, where George and El sang Costello's "Stranger In The House"), but to the devoted Elvis Costello fan, the very rumor of "Costello country" sounded like an inevitible move. Costello's background only confirms the notion.
And interestingly enough, for all of Costello's effective use of his Britishness in his career, this was one time that fact only hurt him — despite evidence that he's no Elvis come lately as far as country music goes. The presence of two songs by Gram Parsons on Almost Blue is the first place to look. (Coincidentally, this edition of this column was originally to be about Parsons, a decision made long before Costello's album came out. I'll talk Gram in a future column that will accompany an upcoming Goldmine feature on him.)
Gram Parsons can rightly be credited with turning on a whole segement of my generation — the baby-boom rock and roll kids — to pure, unfettered and simple country music. As Costello's about the same age as I (late twenties), it's safe to assume that he's been digging back into country music for nigh on a decade now, no doubt inspired by Parsons. So I'll have to frankly admit, if I feel qualified enough to write this column (if you don't agree, there's always "Please Mr. Postman"), I can't really argue Costello's qualifications for cutting a country album in Nashville. After all, the only real qualification one needs is the ability to sing (Nashville provides the songs, players, etc.), and sing well, a fact obscured by all the talk about this album.
Before new wave was even a swell, Costello was honing his country chops on the London folk club circuit fronting a bluegrass group. The flip side of his first single. "Less Than Zero," was a cut laced with steel guitar — "Radio Sweetheart." His first album had faint rockabilly tinges and was recorded with a country-rock band from California called Clover (whose guitarist and steel player John McFee, now a Doobie Brother, plays on Almost Blue). From there on, the indications of a country future for Costello continue — "Stranger In The House" as a bonus single with Armed Forces, "Different Finger" on Trust, "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" on the George Jones HBO Special, the Patsy Cline hit "He's Got You" sung on his last tour. Obviously the boy likes a good country song (and can write one too), as any good singer should.
Basically, Almost Blue tells the tale of a singer and the songs he loves. This point was not lost upon some of the many reviewers who tackled this album, especially the writer who penned the notice in Britain's music-style monthly, The Face: "Forget this country business. This is an LP of songs, well-made songs: and I suspect Elvis wishes he'd made'em. Had he been so inclined he could probably have passed off some of the more obscure selections on Almost Blue as his own work."
Instead of arguing, as some reviewers have done, that Elvis can't do such-and-such as well as George Jones, an argument I'm sure Costello doesn't feel is relevant (he knows how untouchably good Jones is). the three major British reviews of Almost Blue tend to concentrate on the content and emotion of the disc's tracks, eschewing any lengthy discussion of "is this country?" That same question could keep you busy with the music on the country charts for far longer than Costello's excursion will; to argue the notion that a British pop singer hasn't made a totally pure or letter-perfect country-sounding album is inherently a waste of time.
"It has the feel of being both a homage and a holiday," says Paul Du Noyer of, the disc in New Musical Express. Without a "perversion of the songs' intentions … Costello and company cut through the layers of smart prejudice to find the music's enduring values: its sly humor, its lyrical craftmanship … its melancholy dignity. You'll be rewarded by the very-human realism of country's emotional power."
Melody Maker also had kind words for the album, probably making this the first time the top-British music weeklies have agreed on anything, especially Costello. Correctly identifying the five ballads on the album as the work's heart, Allan Jones notes that Costello's vocals are "so heartfelt you can almost hear them beating … these performances are spare, determined, full of delicious ironies . (A)n album whose blatant emotional thrust cuts swiftly across the synthetic posturing of most current pop … It's a relief to know that passion's not completely out of fashion."
But while the prophet hath earned honor in his own country, the land to which he made his pilgrimage generally views the album in far less enthusiastic terms. It appears that the normally lauded-for-his-brashness Costello has raised some hackles on American-writers by attempting to sing American music, but those reviewers with some real credentials in country music at least give the record fair consideration.
John Morthland is one of the rock music world's few writers who can really teach you a thing or three about country music; his assessment of the album in The Boston Phoenix may straddle the fence diplomatically in making any judgments about the record, but at least he's got the sense to get the issues right: "Almost Blue makes no attempt to fit itself into the country mainstream. But neither is it straight-ahead rock; it has only some of the sound — and none of the feel — of previous Costello works. And it's sure not country-rock. I can't find it in myself to fulfill critical duties and pronounce it either a 'good' or a 'bad' album. I'm certain it's not the former, but I'm not prepared to deem it the latter when there's too little going on here to buttress even that position.
"The question then becomes, 'What's going on here?'," says Morthland, who is able to zero in on numerous flaws (forgivable, perhaps) in Costello's delivery. But it's Martha Hume, another fountainhead of country music knowledge and understanding, who seems to correctly identify the country aficonado's reaction to the album.
"What is surprising about Almost Blue," she says, "is that the star and his group, the Attractions, don't make complete fools of themselves." Noting that on three songs — "Sweet Dreams," "I'm You Toy (Hot Burrito No. 1)" and "A Good Year For The Roses" — "he does a fine job," Hume admits Costello is capable of being as "lonely, plaintive and, perhaps, resigned" as the best country singers are. She also notes that this is "the first Elvis Costello album on which the listener can understand all the words."
The New York Times' Robert Palmer offers a cautious view of the album. "Castigat(ing) Mr. Costello for his miscalculations." he also "congratulate(s) him for his success," once again on the ballad material like "Sweet Dreams" and "Color Of The Blues." Palmer also makes note of the fact that "Costello certainly understands more about country music's roots and expressive nauances than enormously popular countrypolitan singers like Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbit."
That's more than one can say for Bill Carlton of New York's Daily News. Apparently wishing Costello made albums more like those of the band Any Trouble — an outfit accused of being "Costello-clones" whose cause Carlton has championed — he tags the material as "downers" (emotion must bother the boy), stating that, "It's like me going to Liverpool and recording an album of sea chanteys. Ridiculous and self-indulgent." Carbon's point is patently absurd — some of the best sea chantey deliveries I've heard by contemporary singers are by people who by no means are sailors, and don't have to be. The ability to sing certain material isn't a result of ethnic origins — I recently heard a French bluegrass whose singer did a wonderful and telling Bill Monroe.
Newsday's Wayne Robins also seems to miss any of the effective work on Almost Blue, writing off Costello's vocals as "pinched and strained" and the album as "an understandable but unfortunate aberration." Likewise Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times — not particularly known as a country expert of champion, calls the album "a major disappointment. (I)t simply lacks the power and originality we have come to expect from this invaluable figure."
But if Almost Blue fails to meet the high expectations that Costello has generated, few seem to realize the reason(s) why. Ken Tucker of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner correctly chose to indict "Costello's choice of producer: Billy Sherrill, the man who has mired both George Jones and Tammy Wynette in violins and mediocre cover material too many times in their careers."
From all reports, Sherrill played the wily old Nashville fox at the sessions, quietly letting Costello prove himself to the commercial master. It's no coincidence that the album's less successful tracks read like a final exam, with nervous delivery, careful approaches and sweaty-palmed attention to detail. What Costello should have found was a producer who would encourage him to make the material his own, not test him against the masters of the idiom.
When allowed his own rein, like on "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)" — which in essence is a Rockpile-styled rave-up that says "this is how we would do it" — Costello takes the country style and molds it into something vigorously new. On songs like "Sweet Dreams" — "this is 'how we should do it' — he also shows an emotional capability that is both affecting and impressive. His two Gram Parsons covers are rendered with a warm spirit that is true to G.P.'s vision of a new country sound, and material like "Success," "Brown To Blue," "A Good Year For The Roses" and "Color Of The Blues" all showcase a singer who can comfortably express the heart-tugging emotions that are part and parcel of good country music.
"Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" sounds like a more effective stage number than a studio cut, and the version on the George Jones HBO special — with Nick Lowe and John Hiatt — proves that point. "Honey Hush" is a sad failure, especially when compared to Billy Burnette's rollicking, crackling version of last year, and is accurately described by Melody Maker as similar to "balling in the dark, it's good, sweaty fun, but a bit fumbled."
Whether or not this is a country album at all, Almost Blue is still one of the year's important events in country music, a must for any country fan seriously interested in seeing how far the idiom's parameters can be stretched before they crack. And as Martha Hume's tongue-in-cheek feature in the New York Daily News notes, Costello could go country all the way, if he followed some simple advice.
"He'd have to change his name again. The 'Elvis' part is OK, but country fans absolutely won't go for somebody named 'Costello.' Since Elvis already copped part of his name from one of his musical heroes, he could just go the rest of the way and change his name to 'Jones.' after George Jones, who is his favorite country singer. Elvis Jones — see, it sounds better already.
"His band, the Attractions, can probably keep the name, unless the guys want to sound a bit more authentic by calling themselves the Attraction Boys." They'd have to get uniforms, of course, and "(t)hey'll have to have a card table, so they'll have a place to sell Elvis Jones records and souveniers. The British accents will have to go too, and everyone should practice smiling. Country stars are friendly."
Given the alternatives, I'm happy with Country Costello just as he is, and an album that may be flawed, but is a highly listenable, enjoyable and interesting experience. That's far more than I can say for many of the records made today by so-called country stars, who may have the Nudie suits and booming concessions, but fail to approach the music with the respect and love that is obvious on Almost Blue.