Although Elvis Costello's latest band, the Sugarcanes, includes some of the best bluegrass pickers in Nashville, the London native makes clear that they're not performing traditional country music. But he says the rural American traditions the musicians embody infuse every note.
"As good as they are, they have a humility about the way they play, and they lend themselves to the telling of the tale," Costello says via telephone from Vancouver, British Columbia. "What it's about is the service of the story."
To help tell his stories — both new ones from the recent Secret, Profane and Sugarcane CD and old favorites — Costello has enlisted an acoustic dream team: Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jim Lauderdale on guitar and vocals, Mike Compton on mandolin, Dennis Crouch on bass and Jeff Taylor on accordion.
The combo makes its Bay Area debut Monday at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, followed by an appearance Wednesday at Wente Vineyards in Livermore.
"It fits together in a totally different way than an electric band, because for one thing the volume is not so great, and nothing is coming to you in a blur," Costello says. "Of course, it's a thrilling blur with you playing in a group like the Imposters, or any of the electric groups I've played in, but this is a different experience completely."
Bay Area fans got a sneak preview last year when Costello threw together a heck of a band — including Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris and guitarist Bill Kirchen — for an Americana-tinged set at the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park that included some of the "Sugarcane" songs. It was the second such appearance at the free fest for Costello, who has become something of an informal adviser and talent scout for the festival in recent years.
Costello, 54, says Bay Area radio stalwart Bonnie Simmons, who has been involved with the festival since its inception in 2001, was his entree into the annual event.
"She was really the first person in the United States to ever invite me on to the radio, at a time when most people were showing us the exit door rather than the entry door," he explains.
In recent years Costello — who has 2-year-old twin boys with his wife, Canadian jazz vocalist Diana Krall — has become something of a fixture in the Bay Area, between his involvement with Hardly Strictly, appearances at buddy Austin de Lone's annual benefits at Great American Music Hall, and even a recent in-store set at Amoeba Records in the Haight with Compton and Lauderdale.
Lauderdale, 52, is not just Costello's harmony singing partner in this band; he's also a die-hard fan.
"It was very dreamlike for me, because he's one of my heroes," Lauderdale says of the invitation to play on this project. "It's hard for me to believe that this is all happening."
While Costello is a musical omnivore, who leaps from Coleman Hawkins to "King of Bluegrass" Jimmy Martin without a pause, Lauderdale is country to the bone, a North Carolina native who has sung bluegrass with Ralph Stanley and written hit honky-tonk songs for George Strait.
Lauderdale says he first became aware of Costello when he read an early interview in which the British new wave sensation professed his love for George Jones and Gram Parsons.
"I thought, wow, I'm going to check this guy out, because those are two of my favorites," Lauderdale says.
The two first met in 1988 when Lauderdale performed at a benefit show in Los Angeles, then crossed paths in subsequent years at the Grand Ole Opry and the Newport Folk Festival. They first sang together when Costello assembled an all-star group to back him at North Carolina's Merle Watson Festival in 2007.
Though Costello has been an outspoken country fan since his career began — he and Jones recorded a duet in Nashville in 1979 — he has only recently been making a mark on the bluegrass and acoustic music scene.
Costello met many of the musicians in the Sugarcanes through producer and longtime Costello friend and associate T Bone Burnett, who worked with many of them on his soundtracks for O Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain.
Sugarcane is the third album Costello has recorded with Burnett, following King of America and Spike.
Though the players and instrumentation are fairly consistent throughout, the nature of Costello's compositions ranges widely.
"It's like he can write a perfect George Jones song and a perfect Johnny Cash song, and then he can do something like 'She Handed Me a Mirror,' " says Lauderdale, referring to a sophisticated art song on the album inspired by the unrequited love of Hans Christian Andersen for singer Jenny Lind.
Live, the band is mixing the new batch of songs with reworkings of Costello classics. Costello is especially excited about what the combo does with one of his most commercial pop hits.
"'Every Day I Write the Book,' which you wouldn't expect us to play at all, took on a whole different life played by this band," he says. "It's a song I've never really found a way that I'm completely happy with playing. "... I actually ended up finding the most satisfying way to perform it with this lineup."
More than perhaps anyone else in popular music, Costello is a student, someone who has tirelessly and passionately endeavored to assimilate the techniques of the masters who came before him.
"You can't write what someone else has written, but you can learn from those structures, and you can have a spin on that," he says. "Writing a simple, really effective three-chord rock 'n' roll song or a four-chord narrative ballad is a tricky task, because many people have done it before and a lot of the permutations have been used up.
"But there's always a new tale to tell."