Like few other figures in rock and roll, Elvis Costello is defined by his indefinability.
From fiery punk of his early days to classic country covers of Almost Blue and his chamber-pop collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, the British singer-songwriter's next direction has remained nearly impossible to predict.
His latest album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, which he recorded in Nashville with producer T-Bone Burnett, might simply seem like his take on acoustic-based roots music à la Plant and Krauss' Raising Sand. But even it can't escape his eclectic streak, as the album contains songs originally commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera and inspired by the life of Hans Christian Andersen.
Costello credits the successful marriage of these seemingly opposing worlds on Secret — recorded in a mere three days — to a crack team of instrumentalists and guest vocalists, among them Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch and Jeff Taylor.
Costello will have the chance to show off his trademark versatility when he takes the stage for a solo set at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on Saturday. On Tuesday some of his Secret accompanists will join him for a special performance at the Ryman Auditorium. Leading up to these two events and to Secret's release, Costello shared his thoughts on the bluegrass tradition, his talented backing band and the long journey some songs take before making it to a record.
What prompted you to do an acoustic-based album at this point in your career?
An awful lot of songs start out on the acoustic guitar, and these seemed to just want to stay there. I'd been talking about making a record with T-Bone and possibly making a solo acoustic record. Then I realized that the variety of songs that I had in my bag when I went to Nashville led us to believe that this kind of accompaniment might yield results, and it proved to be. It was done in a very spontaneous fashion. . . . I have nothing but praise for the ensemble.
Three days seems like a remarkably quick turnaround. Did it seem fast to you?
Some of my records have been recorded very rapidly. Every record you do has a different story. I suppose King of America, I wasn't very at ease in Los Angeles because I couldn't drive a motor car, so I split up the sessions. I think the record appeared to take longer than the actual studio dates took. We had very many more musicians, plus we had drums, and once you introduce more volumes, you maybe have to take a couple of runs at a couple of songs until you get the dynamic right. But when you're sitting around in a semi-circle, and you can catch everybody's eye and they can catch yours, and the quality of musicians that was in the studio, they're going to know instinctively what to do. Even though the songs are by no means traditional in form, they have some allegiances to certain structures of song. They seem to instinctively know when to play and when not to, and when to take the lead.
You've worked on and off with T-Bone Burnett for decades. He's been a prominent figure in this resurgence of appreciation for traditional roots music, from Raising Sand's success to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain soundtracks — the latter of which included your "The Scarlet Tide." Why do you think the public is starting to rediscover roots music?
People say that English musicians tend to have more detailed knowledge about certain American forms. Not necessarily bluegrass, but definitely R&B and blues, because we were seeing it from a distance. Sometimes when things are right under your nose, you don't appreciate them. Perhaps it takes a theatrical context to help you appreciate something that was always indelible, that was always of huge value. . . .
I think one of the most extraordinary performances I've ever witnessed was Ralph Stanley singing "O Death" at the Grammys. Nevermind your death metal or your gangsta rap. This is a guy that is going to scare the pants off you in a great way. It makes you look at yourself, that kind of music. He sang it true and strong, right in the middle of this ghastly arena that was designed for spectacle, not for music — maybe for gladiatorial contests. But I think that was one, in which he prevailed.
To have Alison (Krauss) sing "The Scarlet Tide" for Cold Mountain was a really wonderful experience, to hear that song sung with such beauty. And now it's been sung by a number of other people. So it's off to become a folk song — other people are taking it on.
We wrote a few other songs (for films) but they didn't always find their place. But if you write them sincerely, the songs have their own meaning, their own reason to exist.
You've said that the songs on Secret aren't traditional bluegrass songs, and of course a few came from your work for the Royal Danish Opera. What then led you to believe that bluegrass instrumentation would work for these songs?
(I chose these instruments) mainly because it served the telling of the tale. . . . It was about the content of the songs.
Ballads that come out of the folk music tradition are often accompanied by these sorts of instruments. Country music, at least the kind I like, tends to have some electricity in it, but there are fiddles and dobros as well. I just love those instruments, and when you're talking about Jerry Douglas playing them, the possibilities are endless. Jeff Taylor also came and brought the accordion and concertina, so you've got all these different possibilities for telling the tale.
Looking at the Bonnaroo lineup, and given the close proximity of many of your Secret collaborators, it seems unlikely that your "solo set" will actually be solo. Are you planning on having any guests there?
I'll be perfectly fine if I'm up there for the whole time on my own, but I don't think it's going to happen like that. I don't want to give anything away because I don't know what is going to happen . . . but whatever it is, it's going to be great.