After the album Trust failed to set the world on fire I decided to take a break from songwriting. Having developed the strong conviction that I could better express my current feelings through other people's songs, I started to collect material to record. As the title might suggest Almost Blue was not originally intended to be a "country" record, rather a collection of melancholy songs of many styles. I had already made trial recordings of "Love For Sale" and "Gloomy Sunday," while our live set sometimes included Bobby "Blue" Bland standards: "Two Steps From The Blues" and "I'll Take Care Of You." However the country ballads soon became my main passion. This wasn't exactly a new fad. I had played Hank Williams songs in the folk clubs and pubs, while, as daft as it may sound, I recall being advised to remove The Best Of George Jones from the stiff tour buss sound-system in case it "confused" visiting journalists (it was 1977). The song "Stranger In The House" had been removed from my first album, My Aim Is True, for similar reasons, but when George Jones began his My Very Special Guests album in 1978, I was invited to Nashville to sing it with him. The trip was somewhat anti-climatic. Mr. Jones did, indeed, not show. However, I should stress that this was due to some extra-musical legal hassle rather than any lurid reason.
Producer Billy Sherrill enquired of me: "Do you pick, son?" and I, rather improbably, dubbed an acoustic guitar solo onto the "Stranger in the House" track.
CBS Nashville were also excellent hosts, introducing me to musicians and producers who had worked with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and taking me to meet songwriters such as Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash and a guy who was visiting called Bruce Springsteen. Somehow this trip gave rise to the rumour that the vocals on "Stranger in the House" were recorded at separate sessions. In fact in the middle of our "Armed Funk" tour of America in 1979 we returned to Nashville and I was able to complete the track with George "live" in the studio.
In a roundabout way my link with country music was strengthened by Nick Lowe's marriage to Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle of the Carter Family, not to mention the stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. None of this would have been of any relevance had had Johnny not suggested a Christmas day recording session in the ground floor studio of Nick and Carlene's large terraced house in Shepherd's Bush. In fact the session finally took place on St. Stephen's day where I was among the musicians greeted in the narrow hallway outside the tiny studio by the imposing figure of Nick's father-in-law, who rumbled "Hello I'm Johnny Cash", just like on Live At San Quentin. Cut at this session were Nick's "Without Love" (Which appeared on Cash's Johnny 99 album) and a rare George Jones composition entitled "We Ought To Be Ashamed" which, I'm sorry to say, proved to be prophetic. While it was great fun to sing with the big man it seems our duet did not make the grade.
I should add that some years later Johnny did cut two of my songs, "The Big Light" and "Hidden Shame", on the albums Johnny Cash is Coming to Town and Boom-Chicka-Boom.
On our next tour in January '81 we managed to fit in a trial session with Billy Sherrill. At this date, which took place in the legendary CBS Studio B (Home of Stand By Your Man, Behind Closed Doors and, for that matter, Blonde on Blonde), we were augmented by Pete Drake on pedal steel guitar and cut two sides: "I'll Take Care Of You" and "He's Got You" (both lost). This last song was a Hank Cochran Tune which I had learned from the Loretta Lynn recording, although our treatment of it was more as a R 'n' B ballad.
In April '81, with Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve, Nick Lowe on Bass and John Hiatt on guitar, I took part in a cable television special based on George Jones' My Special Friends album. However, having flown to Los Angeles, I discovered that I had contracted mumps. I put vanity aside, as I was determined not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sing with George on stage. Fortunately he had the immunity which the childhood illness gives, so despite my gargoylic appearance (and although I was quarantined from most of the other artists, who included Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette and Emmylou Harris), our duet went ahead. After the show I went to George's trailer/dressing room to say "Goodnight", but, upon mentioning some of the obscure titles that he had cut and that we were planning to record, I was treated to a private George Jones concert of a few bars of each song.
At the last moment it seemed as if we might lose Bruce Thomas from the sessions due to illness. The unsung hero of that hour was Paul "Bassman" Riley, Pete Thomas' comrade from "Chilly Willi And the Red Hot Peppers" and engineering brains behind Nick Lowe's Ampro Studios, who deputized throughout the rehearsal of more than forty songs. Paul was still on stand-by when we arrived in Nashville. However Bruce recovered just in time to play on the first session.
John McFee, who had played on My Aim Is True, now joined us on lead guitar and pedal steel as I believed he would better understand our intentions and blend with the Attractions' approach to country music."
In fact John had already had some practice at a one-off show at the Palomino, North Hollywood in 1979, where Elvis and the Attractions included several country songs in honour of the occasion.
"The task of recording the album in under two weeks was complicated by the presence of a documentary film crew, fearlessly directed by Peter Carr, who were to capture our adventure for the South Bank Show. Upon arrival I as dismayed to find that as CBS had decided to re-fit Studio B, we were to be diverted to the more modern and less atmospheric studio A. This is perhaps the best place to mention misgivings about some aspects of the recording. Although Billy Sherrill had been the producer of many classic country hits, he was sometimes accused of diluting the "feeling" with swathes of strings and background singers. However I held the conviction that this treatment could, sometimes, create a desirable tension if the song is strong and the singing heartfelt.
Anybody who has seen the South Bank Show will know Mr. Sherrill as an impatient man with an overwhelming interest in purchasing speedboats. I suppose this is one quite valid view. However, the Billy Sherrill who met me in his office to discuss the repertoire was curious, if somewhat bemused by my desire to re-cut tunes that he clearly regarded as "Worn-out." In typical Nashville fashion he had canvassed publishing houses for likely material and presented me with a bin liner full of cassettes. They made interesting listening if only to illustrate what Nashville though should be recorded by a "limey-punk." The highlight was undoubtedly a Willie Nelson ballad which contained the immortal lines: "The flesh around your neck is pale, indented by my fingernail." On the other hand I was also sent "Heartbreak Hotel," apparently in all seriousness. Thankfully we were not short of songs to record.
Almost Blue was recorded between the 18th and 29th May 1981 at which twenty-five or more different titles were recorded, as well as the sessions to add Tommy Millar on fiddle and the "backgrounds" of the Nashville Edition (It had been agreed that the strings would be added after our departure). Coming after the genial (if sometimes berserk) atmosphere created by Nick Lowe, the business-like Nashville style was quite a shock. If Mr. Sherrill's enthusiasm did occasionally wane, as the film record seems to show, the pace was always picked up by engineer Ron "Snake" Reynolds.
My only uneasy moment was during one break when I came across Billy and Snake discussing the merits of their handguns across the mixing console. This may well have been as much for our benefit as our treatment of "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do?" had been for them. After a while it was less of a collaboration and more of a contest in cultural differences and after all it cannot be ignored that cameras were rolling much of the time. Nevertheless despite all of this and the lure of the honky tonk, where, as the song says, I was occasionally "Drawn to the neon lights, tortured by the truth", the record was completed on schedule. In fact there was time to accept an invitation to spend an evening with Johnny, June, and members of the Cash and Carter clans, who graciously welcomed our be-draggled band to their lakeside house outside Nashville (They also invited Billy Sherrill, who quite naturally arrived by speedboat). There was consternation amongst the other patrons and staff of our small country music-business hotel when they heard that we were going to be guests of such people, as they had previously believed we were only in town to rid the world of alcohol by drinking it. It was all a little hard to explain. They should write a country song about it.
Listeners who are already familiar with these tunes will please pardon the following notes on where I found the songs and a few other matters.
"Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do?" was written by Hank Williams although it never sounded much like this. For some strange reason the entire performance was double-tracked in a bizarre double dare showdown.
"Sweet Dreams": Written by Don Gibson and recorded by Patsy Cline and later Loretta Lynn in whose fan club we were all given complimentary memberships while walking in Nashville one day.
"Success" was also recorded by Loretta Lynn....
"I'm Your Toy" was written by Chris Ethridge and Gram Parsons under the rather inelegant title of "Hot Burrito No. 2". It appeared on The Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace Of Sin album which, along with The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, provided my first sustained interest in country music and inspired a curiosity in the artists whose songs they covered - for example: Merle Haggard who wrote "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down."
"Brown To Blue" and "Good Year For The Roses" were both recorded by George Jones, but were not very well known tunes. As evidence of this I offer the fact that the only other version of "Brown To Blue" was by former Lovin' Spoonful member Zal Yanovsky, who cut it on his Alive And Well And Living In Argentina album.
"Good Year for the Roses" reached number six in the British charts which was followed by a top ten placing for the album.
"Sittin' and Thinkin'" was written by Charlie Rich and originally recorded for Sun Records. The engineer on that session was Billy Sherrill who also produced Rich's Epic Records remake in the 70's.
"Colour of the Blues" was a song recorded by George Jones for both the Starday and Musicor Labels.
The recording of "Too Far Gone" certainly commanded Mr. Sherrill's attention but then again it was his song. I heard it first by Tammy Wynette, but, in keeping with the original idea behind Almost Blue , I knew it also by Bobby "Blue" Bland.
"Honey Hush" started out as an R'n'B tune. it was written by Big Joe Turner, however our version owes more to the Johnny Burnett Trio record.
"How Much I Lied" comes from G.P., Gram Parsons' first solo record for Warner Brothers. Together with its follow up Grievous Angel this record had the greatest influence on Almost Blue.
-- Elvis Costello