An unlikely source turned me on to country music twenty years ago while I was living in Nashville. In May 1981 Elvis Costello, my musical hero, came to Music City to record Almost Blue.
This might not seem surprising now, given Costello's work with artists as diverse as Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky Quartet. But in 1981, the idea of Elvis Costello following up Armed Forces and Trust with a country album was downright shocking. And I was suddenly forced to rethink country music. Or at least maybe listen to it.
Growing up in Detroit in the '60s and '70s, I was well versed in rock, plus Motown, Memphis and R&B. Detroit had great radio then (WABX), playing legendary Detroit rock 'n' roll (MC5, Stooges) as well as stuff more off the beaten path — Flamin' Groovies, New York Dolls and the one-hit Nuggets stuff. I absorbed every note, a total music nerd.
But I was never the same after I first heard Costello's This Year's Model in June 1978. This was my rock 'n' roll! — loud, tuneful, intelligent, turning the music establishment upside down. I went nuts for Costello and started snatching up records by every other band of the ilk — Talking Heads, XTC, Ramones, etc. But country music? Please — that was the music of Hee Haw, rednecks and Nixon supporters. I can't recall even one person in my high school (class of 1974) liking country music.
From 1979 to 1981, I went out to hear a lot of live music in Nashville, mostly local punk and new wave bands, and visiting acts such as R.E.M., who I first saw in a tiny West End basement club called Phranks 'N Steins. It was a cultish thing then to be into this kind of music. Though just blocks from Music Row, I might as well have been on a different continent. So for me and many diehard Costello fans, Almost Blue was more than a stretch. It was a true test of faith.
Costello had previously dabbled in country with "Stranger In The House," a song I really liked (released in the U.S. on Taking Liberties). But this was different. He didn't take on country's rough edges — he dove all the way in, making an entire record of songs previously recorded by the likes of George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich. It was produced by legendary Nashville hitmaker Billy Sherrill. Even though Costello's great band the Attractions backed him, it had a cheesy Nashville sound, full of strings and all of Sherrill's usual touches.
To my surprise, I actually liked it from the get-go. (The Rykodisc reissue features Costello's insightful comments on the project and includes eleven excellent extra live tracks.) My favorite memory of that period was seeing Costello & the Attractions play a stunning country set followed by a blistering rock set at the Grand Ole Opry House in late 1981.
Costello was again opening up a new musical terrain for me. Soon I was out buying records by Patsy Cline, George Jones, Gram and Emmylou, and Hank Williams. And while Almost Blue could not have been solely responsible, soon country became cool. Jason Ringenberg came to Nashville shortly thereafter and hooked up with guys who played in the punk bands I used to go see at Phranks 'N Steins. Jason & the Scorchers covered George Jones in, let's say, a less conventional manner than Elvis, pouring gasoline on the traditional arrangements and building a majestic bonfire. By 1983, the Replacements, X and seemingly every other band I liked was into Hank Williams.
So, how does Almost Blue hold up for me twenty years later? Quite well. Costello's version of "How Much I Lied" is to my ears the best Gram Parsons cover ever and one of my favorite moments in the entire Costello catalog. Steve Nieve's impossibly melodic piano lends the song tremendous depth and beauty. And their version of Parsons' "Hot Burrito No. 2" (renamed "I'm Your Toy") is simply perfect.
I love the ballads and mid-tempo numbers — especially "Too Far Gone" (made famous by Tammy Wynette), "Sweet Dreams" (Patsy Cline) and "Good Year For The Roses" (George Jones). But today, the faster numbers sound dated and forced, like somebody's idea of what a British rocker should sound like doing country — the lead track, Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?" being the worst offender.
My sense is that Almost Blue was ultimately an important step for Costello because it sharpened his vocals. That's what I first connected with in country music — those singers sing the hell out of a song. His willingness to stand and deliver like George Jones informed the rest of Costello's career and inspired some of his best vocal performances ("Kid About It" from Imperial Bedroom and the title track from All This Useless Beauty, to name just two).
I want to thank Costello for introducing me to the great rebirth of rock 'n' roll circa 1978, then three years later turning me on to country music. He started me on an infinitely rewarding and still ongoing journey of seeking out and discovering new (and old) music.