Elvis Costello was country when country wasn't cool.
In 1981, Costello, then a 27-year-old Englishman most closely identified with the punk scene of the late 1970s, confounded the mainstream with an album called Almost Blue. Recorded in Nashville's famed Columbia Studio B and helmed by Billy Sherrill, one of the architects of Music City's polished commercial sound, the album offered an entirely unironic selection of classic country covers. It also threw a sharp curveball at pop audiences, who saw that Costello wasn't bluffing in his new-wave anthem "Radio Radio" when he said he wanted to bite the hand that feeds him.
Those who were taken by surprise, however — including much of America's music press — hadn't been paying attention. At a time when disco was the hottest thing going, the upstart Costello arrived in the midst of punk's Class of '77. He had punk energy and attitude to spare, but the sophistication of his songcraft set him in a league of his own. And he wasn't afraid to cite the influence of music that American teens found toxically unhip — including their parents' stashes of Patsy Cline, George Jones and Loretta Lynn records.
Since then, a generation has claimed Almost Blue as a gateway album that served as their entry point into the riches of Nashville's musical heritage. And audiences have come to expect the unexpected from Elvis Costello. As big a music fan as he is a talent (as his IFC series Spectacle makes clear), and as prolific a songwriter as he is a singing encyclopedia of every imaginable genre — from R&B to jazz to baroque and beyond — he's made a career of taking his expansive range of influences and recasting them in his own nervy, literate, idiosyncratic rock 'n' roll image.
But while Costello has ventured all over the musical map with his broad body of work, he has always come back to his affinity for country, and he's always come back to Nashville to prove it. The city's influence threads throughout his 33-year discography, from the country weeper "Stranger in the House" — an outtake from his landmark 1977 debut My Aim Is True, recorded here later with George Jones — through 2004's stunning album The Delivery Man, which includes duets with two Nashville artists he has championed over the years, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
In a conversation with the Scene, rock's consummate musicologist and one of this city's favorite guests reminisces on more than three decades of Music City memories. These include his love for what may be his favorite venue; the Costello performance that drove a rock pioneer out of the room; and recollections of how he made his maiden voyage here in 1978 to sing with one music legend, but ended up fruitfully meeting another instead.
Costello also discusses his latest outing in Nashville, National Ransom — an album cut over the course of 11 days with T Bone Burnett at the producer's Belmont-area studio, Sound Emporium. Following last year's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, it's the second record he's recorded in such a fashion, and his second in a row cut with his new, Nashville-centric backing band The Sugarcanes, which features golden-fingered Music City luminaries the likes of Jim Lauderdale, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Mike Compton and Jeff Taylor. Heavy-hitters like Vince Gill, Buddy Miller and longtime Costello collaborator Marc Ribot make guest appearances to boot.
And as if that's not enough, Costello's fellow Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees and veteran Attractions bandmates Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas join the Nashville players, adding sonic muscle to the acoustic dazzle. The result is a record that draws on a century of American music, from Dixieland jazz and string-band balladry to vintage country-rock, while the songwriter trains his incisive lyrical gift on today's economic hardships. It may be a new collection of hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people, but it has the spirit of a front-porch pickin' party — proof that in a city full of vital musical strains, there's more than one Nashville Sound.
Elvis Costello spoke by phone in advance of his record's release next Tuesday.
Q. Perhaps more than any other major rock 'n' roll artist of the punk era, you've made a thread of country music and Nashville throughout your career. What were your earliest experiences here, and what was it like when you came here for the first time?
Elvis Costello: Well, the first time I came, I'm trying to think, might have been I believe to sing on the George Jones record — which was a pretty good introduction to the city, you know? That was the fluke of my song "Stranger in the House" being picked up to be part of a record of duets that George was doing with Billy Sherrill [My Very Special Guests, 1979]. I believe that was my first time in town. So it was really like buying a golf club in a second-hand store and hitting the ball and hitting a hole in one, you know?
It's insane. Obviously, I was very aware of these crowds of songwriters coming to town with songs, and to get one recorded — much less to be asked to sing it with such a singer — was just inconceivable to me. And George couldn't make the session, so I ended up playing guitar on the track — which was even weirder, because I'm no kind of guitar player. And then I came back a while later, when I was on tour, and did record the song with George.
It took a while to do that record because of having to line it up with the various guests' schedules, so I was fortunate that I had a second go to come back and sing it along with him — and it was hugely intimidating. It didn't feel like my voice had any resonance in those days. It was good for singing over a rock 'n' roll band, but I couldn't sing those kinds of ballads. I could write them, but I couldn't sing them. But still, it was thrilling to stand next to him and sing.
And then I got the notion of coming back and doing an album of country songs that I loved. I came back to town and worked with Mr. Sherrill again in the great Columbia Studio B — which is not only the place where they cut "Behind Closed Doors" and "Stand by Your Man," but also the place where they cut Blonde on Blonde. I knew great records had been made there. Some people sort of forget that Nashville isn't just one of the music towns of America, it's one of the music centers. It's not all about country music. Obviously, country music dominates the town's output, but people would go there to record because that's where the good studios are and the good players, as well.
That's something that I didn't really invest in when I came first, because I [brought] the Attractions and John McFee even. I did one session with Pete Drake on steel as a tryout. It was a great experience to work with him, but I didn't do as other people who had come to town had done: work with local musicians or musicians based in Nashville, which is something I only did really in the last couple of years, you know?
To jump ahead, I had the idea of what I felt about those songs and for better or for worse recorded that album [Almost Blue] the way we did — something of a blur (laughs). [We] continued to come back to the city to play, did one-off appearances and various things, and did a little bit of the recording for The Delivery Man — this is now getting up to more recent times. There was a long period where I didn't do any recording in the city. I just came to visit and play my favorite venue, which would be the Ryman.