The chasm between punk and country has narrowed considerably in the two decades since X and the Blasters teamed up for the Knitters' Poor Little Critter in the Road. Today, Willie Nelson pals around with the Supersuckers, and, for a spell earlier this year, every magazine you leafed through at the grocery checkout featured at least one snap of Loretta Lynn snuggling the White Stripes. But that wasn't the case when a pasty-faced Brit named Elvis Costello and his band, the Attractions, rolled into Music City in May 1981 to cut his fifth album, Almost Blue.
It wasn't Costello's first trip to Nashville. That had come in 1978, when Costello's "Stranger In The House" — a song yanked from his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, for sounding "too country" — was submitted for possible inclusion on the George Jones duets set My Special Friends. Although it would be another year before Jones and Costello actually cut that track, his initial visit did introduce Costello to producer Billy Sherrill, who would serve as a foil, guiding hand and sparring partner throughout the making of Costello's controversial country covers platter.
Almost Blue originally received a mixed reception. At best, critics voiced appreciation that Costello had assayed classics like "Sweet Dreams" without humiliating himself — not unlike the enthusiastic applause adolescents receive after polishing off tougher Shakespeare monologues at forensics meets. Country buffs scratched their heads over the Attractions' decision to turn Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?" into a blistering minute-and-a-half rave-up reminiscent of Costello's pub-rock colleagues Rockpile. But for a generation raised on punk and new wave, Almost Blue proved a crucial gateway, provided the kids could overlook any prejudices they held about country music (or its fans) and simply appreciate the songs.
Unfortunately, no matter when you discover Almost Blue, reality sinks in the more you explore the source material (Gram Parsons, George Jones) from which Costello drew his twelve-song set. Listening to the band trot through Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," we're reminded that Costello is the son of a dance band singer; he clearly knows, and likes, this material, but these simple ditties rely heavily on the vocalist's personality, and Costello's off-the-cuff performances often border on perfunctory.
Likewise, in his haste to display familiarity with the style of Floyd Cramer, keyboard player Steve Nieve frequently turns in flashy performances better suited to a college cover band. Only on three tunes, all poached from Jones ("Brown To Blue," "Colour Of The Blues," and the U.K. hit "Good Year For The Roses"), do Costello and company nail unique, memorable readings.
Rykodisc's 1994 Almost Blue reissue added eleven tracks; Rhino's new double-disc augments the bonus cuts to 27, for a grand total of 39 selections. Though there is ample overlap with the Ryko extras, enough unfamiliar content is added to suggest that, had Costello opened up the playing field, Almost Blue could have been much stronger.
For one thing, he should have heeded Sherrill's advice to go easy on the chestnuts. An outtake of "Blues Keep Calling" seethes with a mix of jealousy and hurt lacking in the rockabilly original by Janis Martin, while his two versions of Leon Payne's "Psycho" are both downright chilling. A rip-roaring turn through Brook Benton's "I'll Take Care of You," plus a second, live version of Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush," make a convincing argument for sprinkling more R&B moments amid the pedal steel and fiddle solos. Hell, maybe the guys were just plumb tired: Two "Lost Sessions" with Sherrill from January 1981 — five months before Almost Blue proper was made — showcase Costello's interpretive gifts as a singer to far greater effect.
Other additions round out the disc's history, including two versions of "Stranger In The House" (with and without Jones). But the real carrot for collectors is the previously unreleased "We Oughta Be Ashamed," yet another Jones ditty, recorded with Johnny Cash during the 1979 Christmas holidays (when Cash was in London visiting his stepdaughter, Carlene Carter, and her then-husband, Costello cohort Nick Lowe).
As Costello himself admits in his liner notes, the track is "really a Johnny Cash gospel record with someone making the occasional spirited intervention in the background." Regardless, it's an interesting curiosity, one which suitably captures the ultimate significance of this "deluxe" version of an uneven album: Almost Blue is now bigger, often better, and certainly merits investigation, but, ultimately, still doesn't quite go the distance.