CMT — Country Music Television — ups its cool considerably when it begins a new monthly series Sunday, CMT Crossroads.
Attempting to eliminate walls between rock and country, the concert series brings together stars from both genres to show how much they have in common.
The stars of their first broadcast, though, probably have more in common than they have differences.
Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello are both giants in contemporary songwriting; the Nashville establishment has shunned both even as they have become critical darlings in rock. Costello's Nashville recording with Billy Sherrill was ignored by country fans; Williams hasn't broken into country radio or been invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.
They also admire one another, as evidenced in the show, taped late last year in New York (black sweaters and square glasses replaced cowboy hats and big hair).
"He's written something like 300 songs," says Williams, in awe. "I've written 50, maybe."
"Yeah, but 50 really, really, good ones," Costello counters.
As different as their approaches and backgrounds — she's the daughter of a poet who first concentrated on Delta blues; he grew up in England, bursting out of the punk era — the two have sung together before, at a Guinness Fleadh a few years back.
They reprise the songs they did then — her "Drunken Angel," their voices showing a little hesitancy to blend on harmonies. But Costello, trading verses on the opening "Change the Locks," adds suitable menace to his part.
He can't find much to add to her stunning "Blue," and doesn't know enough of her "Crescent City," which she begins to sing acoustically at the request of a fan, to join in at all.
Williams is just the right singer to back Costello on his two country offerings, both from his 1986 King of America album — "Indoor Fireworks" and "Poisoned Rose."
They really start smoldering when they are on neutral ground, singing the kind of song Costello says got him thinking about country music in the first place, the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." With Williams' top-notch band adding pedal-steel and guitar flourishes throughout, it's the show's high point.
Don't look to Costello to be making another country bid with this show. The musical chameleon, after a crossover classical album with Anne Sofie Von Otter last year, will appear on an album with the Charles Mingus Orchestra in March and release his own new rock album in April.
But as he begins their duets, he warns, with tongue in cheek: "Conway and Loretta, look out."
Future Crossroads episodes haven't been announced, but one that's been mentioned is similar in not being a stretch for either artist: Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock (who worked together on Williams' latest).
It's a milestone, though, for CMT to promote musical diversity, especially at a time its radio counterparts couldn't find their way to play the most popular country album of the year, the rootsy O Brother, Where Art Thou?