It's no secret Elvis Costello has a crush on the Deep South and its homegrown twang.
On the surface it might seem odd, for a bloke who was raised in London with Irish blood running through his veins and now lives in Vancouver with his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, and their kids.
But don't forget: The wayward son of a dance-band singer briefly fronted a country-rock band called Flip City way back in the early '70s before turning heads as an angry young bespectacled punk and releasing his new wave debut, My Aim Is True, in 1977.
In 1981, Almost Blue, an album reflecting his fixation on country singer George Jones, came with a disclaimer: "Warning! This album contains country and western music and may offend narrow-minded listeners." It was an itch that had to be scratched after years of hiding his George Jones cassette tapes from nosy critics who might spot them on the bus during interviews.
More recently, his The River in Reverse collaboration with pianist Allen Toussaint was one of the first recordings made in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Costello's latest album Secret, Profane and Sugarcane marks his first acoustic album with a band since King of America in 1986 — which he distinctly remembers "came out to total indifference."
And although he likes to remind writers that he lost a fortune on the tour for King of America, now at 58 Costello is out on the road pushing acoustic twang all over again.
This time, when he arrives Aug. 21 at the Wells Fargo Center with the Sugarcanes — Jim Lauderdale on vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Dennis Crouch on bass and Jeff Taylor on accordion — he's not that interested in narrow genre labels.
"I don't see this album, strictly speaking, as a country music record," he says, midway through a half-hour phone interview.
"Obviously the sounds and the instruments are more commonly heard in that form of music. People say it's a bluegrass record. Well, only in the sense that the musicians playing on it are best known for playing bluegrass and traditional country music.
"We're not playing any Bill Monroe songs or Jimmy Martin songs on this record," he said of the bluegrass legends. "It doesn't mean I wouldn't enjoy playing them, but I didn't do that."
Americana — in the most general definition of the term — may be the best description. Recorded in three days in Nashville, with a cast of bluegrass and country regulars sitting around in a circle, the collection of narrative ballads meanders like a Mississippi riverboat through the antebellum South of slavery, hard-drinking, all-night brawls, lost love and redemption. Lauderdale layers the high end of floating harmonies. The rambling song "Sulphur to Sugarcane" strives for a road atlas of rhymes (e.g., "the women in Poughkeepsie take their clothes off when they're tipsy"), paying homage to classics like country star Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere."
Harris contributes for "The Crooked Line." Costello dedicates the final song, "Changing Partners," to Krall, "my one and only dancing partner."
P.T. Barnum plays a recurring role. As does the complicated life of author Hans Christian Andersen, recreated in several ghost songs left over from a commissioned Danish opera never fully realized by Costello.
"As exceptional as he was and as singular as he was as an imagination and writer, (Andersen) also was a man of his times, a man who didn't feel himself fit for love and had this tragic tendency to fall in love with the wrong person, and be rejected and be devastated by it. So really he's not so unique in that.
"There was this one little image of him being handed a mirror as a form of romantic rejection — because he's ugly. It just seemed to be beautiful. And although it did come from his story, when I made the decision to record that song in Nashville I thought, well, this could just be any heartbreak song. It could be a lot of people's experience, like so many songs that have been sung with this kind of instrumentation."
One of the most resonant lines on the album — "I felt the chill before the winter came" — arrives in a tale of lost love he co-wrote with Loretta Lynn (who mined a similar theme in the 1974 single, "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill").
"She's just a ball of fire," Costello remembers. "She comes into the room with so much energy and humor and full of ideas that are flying in a million directions. It's like opening a jar full of butterflies and everything's flying in colorful directions. And it's, like — do we go follow that idea or that line?"
But the one song on Secret, Profane and Sugarcane that has surprised him the most, in the limited live run he's had so far, is "Red Cotton."
"It's about the complex web of guilt over slavery and why people lied about it," he says. "It also speaks about Liverpool's role, which is my mother's hometown and one of the places I regard as a home. It's something that's really conflicted the people of the city, the people who have charge of the history of the city. Do they speak of it? Do they deny it? Do they carry it like a big mark of guilt?"
The first time he played the song live with the Sugarcanes, at a show in New Jersey, the audience shot out of their seats and gave him a standing ovation.
"It completely floored me that they did that."
The same thing happened at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
"I don't think we've gotten past the point that it's the South's fault. That's the whole point of the song. There were the traders in West Africa who sold either their country-people or those who they had enslaved from other parts of Africa. There were the cotton merchants who were quite happy to see the ships sail off to do this dastardly trade. There were the people who benefitted from it on the plantations in the New States. They all shared that. So the song isn't this grandiose, self-satisfied, finger-pointing song."
Well-versed in the idioms of the South, he says the fascination goes back to the '70s when Costello and the Attractions and other British bands like The Clash were making waves in New York and L.A. — "Even then, my third port of call was New Orleans."
More than 30 years after he first dabbled in Nashville, he recently spoke at the Country Music Hall of Fame about "my peculiar relationship with Nashville."
"It really is as a writer imagining myself — I could go on location, as a filmmaker would, to any place in the world. Obviously a song like ‘Red Cotton' travels in a different route than a song like ‘Sulphur to Sugarcane.' One is traveling by ship, the other by road."
And, once again, he'll watch as his wide audience either takes the leap of faith or turns a deaf ear and awaits the next career twist.
"I think there's a mixture of people. Some will give you the benefit of the doubt and they sort of trust you to make that decision about where we're headed next. And there are other people who want you to stay the same and actually get quite annoyed with you when you make changes," he says.
"The best thing to trust is my own curiosity and enthusiasm for whatever's in front of me. And when I feel I've done everything I can with it, the usual occurrence is that I find myself doing something contrasting. Not because I'm being perverse, but because that's the natural flow. It seems that works. For me to try to second-guess the audience or try and protect some sense of brand identity would be a huge mistake."