Draw a line from Elvis Presley's birthplace in Tupelo to his grave here in Memphis, and you'll find that the town of Oxford, located in the heart of the north Mississippi hill country, provides the vertex necessary to complete an isosceles triangle.
Elvis Costello might have done his geometry homework before he traveled to Oxford's Sweet Tea recording studio, but, evidently, he had more than the Pythagorean theorem on his mind when he headed south to cut The Delivery Man last spring.
"Elvis stayed in a house on the edge of Faulkner Woods," says Sweet Tea's Dennis Herring, who produced the album. "He was really into the mythology of it all. When we went from Oxford to Clarksdale and up to Memphis, he saw some different (bluesmen's) gravesites. I think he was genuinely thrilled to be here."
American Dream Safari CEO Tad Pierson, who drove Costello and author Robert Gordon around Memphis in his 1955 Cadillac, agrees. "We cruised around town talking about music and film. He really liked connecting things," Pierson says. "It was great. Here I am, a 52-year-old fart running around trying to make my mark, and he's a guy who's done it, yet he still enjoys getting up on a small stage and giving it everything he's got. Being around him gave me a lot of energy."
Energy is an understatement: Over the last 27 years, Costello — who recently turned 50 — has reincarnated himself more than a dozen times, discarding personas like yesterday's garbage. He's been a new-waver, a rocker, a classicist, a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, and a purveyor of soul, pop, and country music. On his last three albums — out of a catalog that's 21 records strong — he's sampled Broadway (with Burt Bacharach on Painted From Memory), returned to art rock (for the pretentiously acerbic When I Was Cruel), and delved into torch-song territory (last year's North, a song cycle dedicated to paramour Diana Krall). It's enough to make a schizophrenic sweat, but The Delivery Man marks yet another departure, as Costello impulsively dives back into rock-and-roll.
"I'm definitely more of a fan of his rock side, so I was hoping he was calling to do that type of record," Herring admits, explaining that he and Costello worked on the album for a total of six weeks: "A little less than a month in the recording phase, a day of pure overdubs, and two weeks of mixing." Most of the record was cut in Oxford, although basic tracks for "Monkey Man," the lead single, were recorded at Jimbo Mathus' Delta Recording Studio in Clarksdale via Pro Tools. Vocal sessions with Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris were done in Los Angeles and Nashville, respectively.
"When we were working on 'There's a Story in Your Voice' with Lucinda, Elvis turned to me with this look and said, 'Oh, man,'" Herring recalls. "He was so thrilled to hear her voice. I've worked with different people — artists who sell plenty of records — and it was nice to be around someone in Elvis' position who's still excited to wake up and make music. He really, really loves music in a way that's pure and straight from the heart."
Costello did four shows in Oxford right before he started recording. "When we rehearsed, the stuff sounded one way, but by the time we recorded it, the material had a whole other life, Herring says. "Airing the songs out in front of people gave him a lot of confidence."
Costello capped off his trip in April with two sold-out nights at the Hi-Tone Café. "These shows fell into my lap," says club owner Dave Green, who credits Doug Dawson, a soundman for Emmylou Harris who also installed the Hi-Tone's P.A., for the initial connection. "Someone called Ardent Studios and Easley Recording for a reference, and they both gave us the A-plus. The next thing I knew, we were doing a spring cleaning to get ready.
"From [business partner] Bryan Powers, who helped with ticket sales and promotions, to Doug Dawson and Joel Gradinger, who did a complete balance on the sound equipment, my staff handled the situation really well. We didn't miss a step in creating a friendly atmosphere," Green says. "Khang Rhee [Elvis Presley's karate instructor, whose dojo once occupied the Hi-Tone's space] even came out."
Friday night, Costello will return to the Hi-Tone for back-to-back sets to film the pilot episode of Club Date, a new TV show of filmed concerts. "I was beside myself when we got the call," Green says. "I couldn't believe it. Apparently, Elvis really wanted to come back here."
The two shows, also billed as the record-release party for The Delivery Man, will be filmed by cinematographer Michael Borofsky, who's also worked with Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese. "Because of all the cameras, we're only selling 200 tickets to the early show and 175 to the late show," Green explains. "Once we get everyone in here, if we feel like the room is safe, we'll be charging $30 at the door." Advance tickets are likely to be gone by press time, but you can call the Hi-Tone at 278-8663 for more information.