The first time Elvis Costello recorded an album in Nashville, it was a near disaster. "We were staying at this notorious rock & roll hotel, drinking all night with Gregg Allman," Costello says of the sessions for his 1981 country covers album, Almost Blue. "It was nine days of drunkenness. It's a fucking miracle that we made the record."
Costello returned to Music City in April of last year for a less debauched — and more focused — session. "I'm not trying to be a country singer this time," he says. Instead, his new studio set, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, features 13 tunes performed in stripped-down Appalachian mode, mixing the propulsive chugs and metallic twang of bluegrass with the singer's astringent vocals, knotty melodies and typically barbed lyrics. The disc was recorded live-to-tape with producer T Bone Burnett in three eight-hour sessions. "It just didn't take any longer than that," says Costello, sitting on a purple couch in New York's Electric Lady Studios. "It's not a careless record, just well-executed."
Though Costello releases music at an incredible pace — close to 30 studio albums since 1977 — this record was unexpected, even to the artist himself. "Two years ago, I wasn't sure if I was going to make any more records," says Costello, who released the freewheeling rock set Momofuku and hosted the talk show Spectacle in 2008. "It wasn't much fun anymore." But a stint opening for Bob Dylan as a solo act in the fall of 2007 got Costello excited about making an unplugged album. "Nobody was coming to hear me, so I could test out new songs," he says. "The audience applauded, and then I was gone." Most of the Sugarcane material, including a few songs he wrote for an unfinished opera about Hans Christian Andersen, was road-tested on the Dylan tour and then fleshed out with a full band at North Carolina's MerleFest in 2007 and San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2008.
Burnett assembled the band of top roots sidemen — including dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolinist Mike Compton and singer Jim Lauderdale — and also fed Costello ideas for tunes. "T Bone sent me Robert Johnson's 'From Four Till Late' and a Sidney Bechet record," recalls Costello. And he said, 'Can we write something that jams those two ideas together?'" The result, "Sulphur to Sugarcane," is an "I've Been Everywhere"-style blues ramble that wryly mocks loose women from Poughkeepsie, New York, to Ypsilanti, Michigan. "I played that one with Dylan every night," says Costello, who will tour with the Sugarcane band this summer. And I was amazed at how much applause you can get for impugning the reputation of a city's womanhood from the stage."
Sugarcane also includes a pair of tracks Costello wrote for Johnny Cash — the noir shuffle "Complicated Shadows" and the honky-tonk cut "Hidden Shame." (Cash recorded only the latter.) "I can hear his voice in the song," Costello says of "Hidden Shame," which is based on the true-life story of a prisoner who confesses to murdering his best friend. "The conflict in the song, about making these big moral choices about life and death, seemed like something he could sing." Loretta Lynn and Costello penned the heartbreak ballad "I Felt the Chill" side by side. "She had this big box full of scraps of paper, with song fragments and bits of lyrics," he recalls. "She would just pull out song titles and say, 'Has anyone used this title? Let's take it.'"
Twenty-eight years after Almost Blue, Costello is glad to be back making country music. So much so that he's been recording with Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson, and trying to get Lucinda Williams to do an album of country duets. "The reaction from locals back [in 1981] was like, 'Get your hands off my girlfriend,'" Costello recalls. "But now I'm just doing the things I do. I'm not a bluegrass singer, but this is the way that I heard these songs going, this is the way the tales needed to be told. And nobody can tell me what to do now."
He pauses for a second and laughs. "But they never could anyway, so I guess it makes no damn difference."