Elvis Costello was country when country wasn't cool.
In 1981, Costello, then a 27-year-old Englishman most closely identified with the punk scene of the late 1970s, confounded the mainstream with an album called Almost Blue. Recorded in Nashville's famed Columbia Studio B and helmed by Billy Sherrill, one of the architects of Music City's polished commercial sound, the album offered an entirely unironic selection of classic country covers. It also threw a sharp curveball at pop audiences, who saw that Costello wasn't bluffing in his new-wave anthem "Radio Radio" when he said he wanted to bite the hand that feeds him.
Those who were taken by surprise, however — including much of America's music press — hadn't been paying attention. At a time when disco was the hottest thing going, the upstart Costello arrived in the midst of punk's Class of '77. He had punk energy and attitude to spare, but the sophistication of his songcraft set him in a league of his own. And he wasn't afraid to cite the influence of music that American teens found toxically unhip — including their parents' stashes of Patsy Cline, George Jones and Loretta Lynn records.
Since then, a generation has claimed Almost Blue as a gateway album that served as their entry point into the riches of Nashville's musical heritage. And audiences have come to expect the unexpected from Elvis Costello. As big a music fan as he is a talent (as his IFC series Spectacle makes clear), and as prolific a songwriter as he is a singing encyclopedia of every imaginable genre — from R&B to jazz to baroque and beyond — he's made a career of taking his expansive range of influences and recasting them in his own nervy, literate, idiosyncratic rock 'n' roll image.
But while Costello has ventured all over the musical map with his broad body of work, he has always come back to his affinity for country, and he's always come back to Nashville to prove it. The city's influence threads throughout his 33-year discography, from the country weeper "Stranger in the House" — an outtake from his landmark 1977 debut My Aim Is True, recorded here later with George Jones — through 2004's stunning album The Delivery Man, which includes duets with two Nashville artists he has championed over the years, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
In a conversation with the Scene, rock's consummate musicologist and one of this city's favorite guests reminisces on more than three decades of Music City memories. These include his love for what may be his favorite venue; the Costello performance that drove a rock pioneer out of the room; and recollections of how he made his maiden voyage here in 1978 to sing with one music legend, but ended up fruitfully meeting another instead.
Costello also discusses his latest outing in Nashville, National Ransom — an album cut over the course of 11 days with T Bone Burnett at the producer's Belmont-area studio, Sound Emporium. Following last year's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, it's the second record he's recorded in such a fashion, and his second in a row cut with his new, Nashville-centric backing band The Sugarcanes, which features golden-fingered Music City luminaries the likes of Jim Lauderdale, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Mike Compton and Jeff Taylor. Heavy-hitters like Vince Gill, Buddy Miller and longtime Costello collaborator Marc Ribot make guest appearances to boot.
And as if that's not enough, Costello's fellow Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees and veteran Attractions bandmates Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas join the Nashville players, adding sonic muscle to the acoustic dazzle. The result is a record that draws on a century of American music, from Dixieland jazz and string-band balladry to vintage country-rock, while the songwriter trains his incisive lyrical gift on today's economic hardships. It may be a new collection of hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people, but it has the spirit of a front-porch pickin' party — proof that in a city full of vital musical strains, there's more than one Nashville Sound.
Elvis Costello spoke by phone in advance of his record's release next Tuesday.
Perhaps more than any other major rock 'n' roll artist of the punk era, you've made a thread of country music and Nashville throughout your career. What were your earliest experiences here, and what was it like when you came here for the first time?
Well, the first time I came, I'm trying to think, might have been I believe to sing on the George Jones record — which was a pretty good introduction to the city, you know? That was the fluke of my song "Stranger in the House" being picked up to be part of a record of duets that George was doing with Billy Sherrill [My Very Special Guests, 1979]. I believe that was my first time in town. So it was really like buying a golf club in a second-hand store and hitting the ball and hitting a hole in one, you know?
It's insane. Obviously, I was very aware of these crowds of songwriters coming to town with songs, and to get one recorded — much less to be asked to sing it with such a singer — was just inconceivable to me. And George couldn't make the session, so I ended up playing guitar on the track — which was even weirder, because I'm no kind of guitar player. And then I came back a while later, when I was on tour, and did record the song with George.
It took a while to do that record because of having to line it up with the various guests' schedules, so I was fortunate that I had a second go to come back and sing it along with him — and it was hugely intimidating. It didn't feel like my voice had any resonance in those days. It was good for singing over a rock 'n' roll band, but I couldn't sing those kinds of ballads. I could write them, but I couldn't sing them. But still, it was thrilling to stand next to him and sing.
And then I got the notion of coming back and doing an album of country songs that I loved. I came back to town and worked with Mr. Sherrill again in the great Columbia Studio B — which is not only the place where they cut "Behind Closed Doors" and "Stand by Your Man," but also the place where they cut Blonde on Blonde. I knew great records had been made there. Some people sort of forget that Nashville isn't just one of the music towns of America, it's one of the music centers. It's not all about country music. Obviously, country music dominates the town's output, but people would go there to record because that's where the good studios are and the good players, as well.
That's something that I didn't really invest in when I came first, because I [brought] the Attractions and John McFee even. I did one session with Pete Drake on steel as a tryout. It was a great experience to work with him, but I didn't do as other people who had come to town had done: work with local musicians or musicians based in Nashville, which is something I only did really in the last couple of years, you know?
To jump ahead, I had the idea of what I felt about those songs and for better or for worse recorded that album [Almost Blue] the way we did — something of a blur (laughs). [We] continued to come back to the city to play, did one-off appearances and various things, and did a little bit of the recording for The Delivery Man — this is now getting up to more recent times. There was a long period where I didn't do any recording in the city. I just came to visit and play my favorite venue, which would be the Ryman.
Is that really your favorite venue?
It's pretty much up there in the top five, I've gotta say. I've had more good nights in there — more enjoyable nights playing, and some really special [shows, such as] the night The Fairfield Four came out and played with us. Just great shows. Even a couple of years ago I came and opened up unannounced for Bob Dylan. It's just a great room to be in, it's undeniably one of the great rooms. There's a handful of others that when I see them come up on the itinerary I go, "Great! We're gonna have a night there with any luck." Emmylou [Harris] came out and sang with us one night; I was her guest at the Opry. It was pretty unimaginable for me that I would be on the Opry, you know?
Do you remember the first time you played the Ryman?
Um, I don't know what year it was. Of course, when I first came to town it wasn't being used, it was closed. When we toured with Almost Blue I actually played the Opryland theater [the Grand Ole Opry House].
Yeah, they actually just reopened it. It was damaged in the flood.
Really? Well, the only time I ever played it was back in '81. Since then, if I've played in town I've tended to play the Ryman.
Talking about the early Nashville days, there are two things that I've heard that I'm wondering if you can confirm or elaborate on. The first is the story of how you saw Bruce Springsteen at Municipal Auditorium, and how that inspired the song "Temptation" on Get Happy.
That was when I came to town to record with George Jones. That was sort of a consolation prize for the fact that George didn't make the first session. I was just there and I'd done my guitar solo, and [someone] said, "You know, Bruce Springsteen is in town. Want to go see him?" So I went to go see Bruce, and that was the first time we met.
It was just before Darkness on the Edge of Town came out, but I don't think his following was so solid in Nashville. I remember being in the audience thinking, "He's having to put these songs over." It wasn't like [when] I saw him just a little while later in New Jersey, and it was a rabid audience that knew every word of every song. In Nashville, there were definitely people who were seeing him for the first time.
I wasn't actually seeing him for the first time, because I had seen him on the Born to Run tour in London. But I was seeing him play in America for the first time, so it was really strange — because I had [thought] that he was beloved everywhere. And of course then you realize that America's a huge country and there are regional preferences, and he wasn't yet completely over the top in Nashville. He was still convincing some people —and that, I suppose, is what brought out the idea of "Temptation." Because I was looking at myself going, "What am I going to have to do to get across?" (laughs)
Exactly. And then I guess it was a year or two after that, but I heard this story claiming Carl Perkins was supposed to come on stage here to play with the Attractions but bailed.
Carl was supposed to be the opening act on the Armed Forces tour. He had a record out on Don Arden's label, Jet Records, and — this is the way I heard it — for whatever reason, they decided not to support Carl on that tour. In those days, quite often, the labels would put some money into an act coming out on the road, tour support. I don't think it happens so much these days.
Anyway, it didn't happen at the last minute, and we asked if he wanted to come and play when we got to Nashville. We were playing [War] Memorial Hall or something. And he was there with his guitar and everything all ready to go. We never had a rehearsal or anything: We were just going to play "Mystery Dance," because we figured it owed a little bit to one of his songs, you know? (laughs)
Anyway, when we came off — we didn't often do encores in those days — he'd gone. So I think he must been horrified by the way we sounded. (laughs) We did sound quite a lot different [from] our records. We didn't sound I guess anything like he really imagined we'd ever sound.
When you first came to Nashville, how did people react to you? Were people suspect? Did they see you as some kind of imperialist, or did they embrace you?
I don't think anybody noticed, to be honest. I met some songwriters and other musicians, I was staying at very much a rock 'n' roll musician's hotel, Close Quarters — I remember Gregg Allman was in there. We were fairly kind of pleased with ourselves in those days — quite a lot of drinking — so I don't suppose we were the easiest company.
And it's very well documented that Mr. Sherrill didn't know why we wanted to record those songs. But he did produce the record, and we had a big hit in England with one of the songs, which was strange. We ended up introducing Jerry Chestnut's "Good Year For the Roses" to an awful lot of people in England who wouldn't have heard George Jones' version, who just weren't country music fans at all.
I had a sort of status as a pop singer on the basis of those first three or four records. [Trust], the album before, [hadn't] done anything really commercially — [then] we suddenly had a hit again with a country song. So some people were like, "What's this? It's terrible. Why is he doing this?"
[But] some people got that it was sincere. Of course, I hear the performances now and I [would sing] all those songs differently because of the benefit of experience. But it was a truthful record emotionally, and they were songs that I loved. I probably would do a lot of things differently now, but it's pretty amazing really now when I think about it, (laughs) just the audacity of coming and doing it, you know?
It happens a lot with a lot of the records I've made that have been different in some way to what I've started with. Quite often, the reaction initially is great horror and "This is the end of the world!" and "How can he be doing this?" And then people calm down a bit and listen to what the record actually is, rather than thinking about what it isn't. And then they start to hear the music inside it. It may not be everybody's taste, whether it's that record, a record of piano ballads, or something else. I've done a lot of different kinds of records, and they've all been the ones I wanted to make when I made them.
That explains the disclaimer that appeared on Almost Blue: "WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners."
Well, yeah. That was my former manager making a bit of mischief, because he knew there were gonna be people that would be completely up in arms about it. There are much more things to be upset about than what's on a record, you know?
Sure. You talked about the exposure you gave "Good Year for the Roses" and how it was a hit. Through listening to your records, I've been exposed to many artists I might not have otherwise heard, just because they're an influence to someone I like.
Well, that's the way the process works. I mean, a lot of people in England caught on to rhythm and blues because of the Rolling Stones, and the people that the Rolling Stones learned from were playing Howlin' Wolf songs. When I was a kid I listened to all the music from the '60s, and one of my favorite groups was The Byrds. When The Byrds made Sweetheart of the Rodeo — which was a very big shock to anybody that'd been growin' up on "Eight Miles High" — they were doing all these really futuristic sounding, beautiful harmony records with really strange chords. And suddenly they do [the Louvin Brothers'] "The Christian Life."
At first, it was a lot to take in. And then I started to really listen to the songs and started to get curious — like, "Who are these Louvin Brothers? Who is this Merle Haggard?" I knew who Johnny Cash was — but truthfully, most of the hits I knew on the radio were kind of novelty songs. The deep songs weren't as well-known to people of my age. Once I started to hear "I Still Miss Someone" and these other songs — goodness, it was just the same as discovering James Carr or some great soul singer, you know? It was really a door opening.
And that thing keeps happening. I'd followed Gram Parsons into his solo career, I'd followed his recordings, I'd followed Emmy. Here we are all these years later, and I have people come up to me and say [of Almost Blue], "You did that same thing for me that that record did for you" — which is what you just said. And I don't think I take any particularly great pride in it. I just think, "Well, that's what you should do" — if you like it, tell somebody else, you know? Even if that means that you have to illustrate it in your own, kinda, screwed-up version of it, if your heart is really in it and you're singing it the way you believe it.
There are plenty of examples of that. There's lots of music you can hear that's drawing on the riches of all of this music. There are such rich scenes around all cities now, because every piece of musical history is available to you. It could be part of that new idea you've got. There are lots of people ready to listen with great understanding to some of the oldest music. Not everybody wants to be Sugarland, you know? Or some kind of current band. They're listening back to the Delmore Brothers, or the Louvins, or Stonewall Jackson, and you can hear people today who are drawing from the strengths of those records.
They won't all be in the charts: You might have to go and dig 'em out. But there's a place for pop music and whatever accent it has, and there's a place for the other stuff, which is going into the soul of it. If it becomes too self-conscious, then it becomes a self-contained style, which cuts it off from really flowing. Which is where I suppose I am at a slight advantage, because I stand outside of the tradition. I can sing with people, I can play with great musicians — as I've done on these last two records — but singing about things that come from completely other experiences.
I love to listen to all sorts of music from all sorts of different kinds of life. But I can only write the things I imagine myself. Some of them have occurred to me, and some of them are observation. Obviously, as a writer you can do that — you can travel and put yourself in the clothes of somebody else and try to put yourself in the mind of somebody else. That's a lot of what the songs on this record are.
When you cut the Secret, Profane and Sugarcane record with the core group of these bluegrass musicians — The Sugarcanes — did you realize it was going to be a lasting relationship that would yield more than one record?
I'd known Jerry Douglas a while, and I had actually recorded with a couple of the other guys before for just a one-off occasion. I'd played at Merlefest three years ago —my first concert after my boys were born — and they'd put a band together around me. I had Larry Campbell playing with me at the time, and Jerry [Douglas] played in that band and Jim [Lauderdale] played in that band. Sam Bush played in that band, as well.
So I kind of knew everyone a little bit. And of course I've known T Bone [Burnett] a long time. So once we went in there and made [Secret, Profane] — we made it in three days — it was really just sort of playing those songs, and this was the first acquaintance of really those five or six people playing together. We did two days with Jerry as the featured soloist on a lot of the songs, and then Jeff Taylor came in and we played a different kind of ensemble, with Stuart Duncan and Mike Compton coming forward a little bit more in the arrangements.
Then we took it out on the road with the whole band playing simultaneously, and it immediately took on another life. I wanted these austere-sounding readings of those songs — I didn't want them to sound like we were trying to rock 'em up. [But] when we got in front of people, it turned into this acoustic rock 'n' roll band as much as anything else. And I wanted to extend the repertoire outside of Secret, Profane and Sugarcane as much as we could. So we started doing rearrangements of my older songs that took advantage of the possibilities of these instruments — and also the fact that we had a lot of vocal harmony, which I never had in The Attractions. That was a great thing.
I immediately started writing. By the time I finished [the tour] at Cain's Ballroom [in Tulsa, Okla.] last summer, that night I think we played two songs from Secret, Profane and Sugarcane and five unrecorded songs. So we were a forward-leaning band immediately. And it took a moment or two to schedule everybody and get them in one place.
In the interim I wrote a number of other songs, which called for different sounds, and I realized that I also needed Pete Thomas, I also needed Marc Ribot. I had piano songs that Jeff Taylor could play because he's a great piano player, but he plays more within the ensemble; I also wanted the more expansive approach to the piano that Steve Nieve brings. You've got a song like "Stations of the Cross," which has got a funk bass line and a big orchestral piano — and electric fiddle. I'd heard that both Jerry and Stuart [Duncan] could also both step out tonally. I knew they weren't purists: I know they're beautiful, elegant, incredibly virtuosic musicians — but they were also capable of getting completely out if you wanted them to.
Marc Ribot is the same. You hear what he does on the first track, and then you hear what he does on the second track — it's the same guitar player. Most people would say, "You'd have to get two people to do that." One minute he's sounding like air raid sirens, the next minute he's playing beautifully chosen voicings in an ensemble of music that really sounds like it has some belonging to the '20s and '30s, because it's telling a tale from that time.
When I first heard the title track, "National Ransom," the organ part really reminded me of "You Belong to Me."
Yeah, but it just uses that blues riff. I mean, there's a million Willie Dixon songs that have the same chords, but they're all different songs. I understand what you're saying, because obviously it has this Vox Continental organ. It wasn't put there to remind you of it, but it's the same riff as "From a Buick 6" by Bob Dylan, and it's a bunch of Little Billy Boy Arnold songs, it's the same as "I Wish You Would," it's the same as "Whatcha Gonna Do About It?" by the Small Faces, ... It's common language, you know?
People said to me when U2 put out "Get On Your Boots," "Why didn't you sue them?" I said, "Well, that would be ridiculous — because then Bob Dylan would have to sue me for 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' and Chuck Berry would sue him for 'Too Much Monkey Business.' "
When you listen to Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve play now, it's much more refined — obviously they're a lot more experienced. But had you taken the This Year's Model model of Pete and Steve and paired them up with a bluegrass string band, how would that have worked 30 years ago? Or would it have worked at all?
I think, where my head was at in relation to country music [then] ... not so much. Although I knew some of that music, my model was more Charlie Rich in those days. That was really sort of where I could see what we called "Beat Group" music that was really informed by R&B more than anything else. And soul, as we called it generally then. But I could hear where that and country kind of hit it off — in the songs of, like, Dan Penn and Charlie Rich.
Therefore, I could sort of imagine that I could do my version of that — and that's where things like [Almost Blue's cover of] "Sweet Dreams" were heading. Also there was Tommy McLain, whom I only met recently — Tommy McLain from South Louisiana, the Cajun singer. I'd heard those records as well, and I knew there were places where country and soul collided in a way that I believed I could do something that would make sense.
I obviously couldn't sing like George Jones — I couldn't sing like any of these people. So I don't know that it ever would have occurred to me to try and bring in those [stringband] sounds. John McFee played some fiddle on Almost Blue, on those sessions, because he plays everything. When we worked with Pete Drake, it was fantastic — but he played in, then, the traditional style of a Nashville player. And I wanted it to be our self-contained band, because we were very much, at that point, a band.
Sometimes the simple thing just works, which — to answer your question about "You Belong to Me" — I just go, "That's just common language to about 20 songs, and we're driving over the edge of a cliff in ["National Ransom"], that's what this song is describing. If it wasn't so tragic, it would be funny — [these] circumstances everyone is living with. As we're going off the edge of the cliff, I don't think I have time to write a melody about this. We've just got to say what we've got to say, you know?
The song is just saying the same thing as "I drink a little beer at a tavern / I sing a little these working man blues." It's the same song; it just needed an update. I'm not saying that I've written a better song than Merle, because Merle's writing a song about [it] right now, too.
Was this record an obvious commentary on the financial crisis?
Well, maybe here and there. I've tried to get the humanity in these characters that I've written. Some of them are in the middle-distance of the past. They're back in times when these circumstances have occurred before, because I wanted to think about, "How did people kinda deal with it? What little bit of themselves did they preserve? What kind of solace did they find?" And a record that starts as it does and ends as it does, it ends with the voice of some hope.
Is bringing the past into that kind of perspective why Depression-era music influences parts of the record? Is that as much part of the commentary as the lyrics?
I generally find that when you lean back a little bit — just generally in music, that's a good thing, leaning back, not so much as you lay down — it puts you on your back foot and you launch yourself forward that way. [If] you go all leaning forward like that, you're liable to topple over before you've got the job done. That's the only way I can explain it, it's hard to describe. It's like sort of a judo move or something, I don't really know another way. (laughs)
Right now I feel the same way about the language of some of these songs I've chosen [for National Ransom], like "A Slow Drag With Josephine," and "Jimmy Standing in the Rain," and even a more mysterious song that's not so easy to pin down in time like "All These Strangers." We were in Nashville with these incredible musicians, none of whom are too pleased with themselves or there telling you how it should go —they're all listening to each other, serving the song.
I've got T Bone there, with a beautiful studio: You're in the Sound Emporium, which Jack Clement built — which is really a great room, you can hear and feel everything you wanna hear. And it doesn't harm to have friends drop by as they did. Dan Penn came down with Donnie Fritts one day. That was thrilling to me. I'd admired them for years and we'd never met.
Then I got to sit for a bit with Hank Cochran and have a conversation on film for a documentary about his life, even though he was really gravely ill. Hank's song ["He's Got You"] was the first one I ever recorded when I came to Nashville to record on my own session. So it was pretty emotional for me to sit with him and thank him for that and hear him tell stories and think, "You're just in this for a long, long time."
You can't set your heart too much on any one thing you do, transforming every thing you do. You've just gotta keep going, singing the songs that are within you and loving the songs that you love — and if you hear something, pass it on to somebody else, because we're ultimately all in this together.
There's a sense of competition about it, but it's not really that healthy. I don't have any idea where this group of songs will take me — but I know it will be somewhere, and I'll be glad to be there when I'm there. That's been my experience with everything I've done.