The Other Elvis

Garden & Gun: John Currence: Texas - December 08/January 2009

Elvis Costello on his love affair with the South

Below is the Q&A that ran in the December 08/January 09 issue of Garden & Gun magazine.

Plus, watch a video of Elvis Costello singing a Johnny Cash song and one of Johnny Cash singing an Elvis Costello song.

It has been a busy year for Elvis Costello. After releasing a new album, Momofuku, in April, he spent the summer on tour with the Police and is launching a new TV series, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, on the Sundance Channel in December. A fusion of music and talk with Costello in the role of interviewer, the show is the latest creative twist for the English musician, whose thirty-year career has often defied expectations. But as Costello explains, his catalogue of material has always been about trust, both in himself and in those who follow him, and many of his musical choices have come from his attraction to the American South.

You were a teenager in Liverpool in the early 1970s, not exactly a direct pipeline for Southern music. Where did this interest in the South begin?

As a youngster, you make up all sorts of stories for why things sound the way they do, and if you are into records, you tend to want to find out where those records come from because you want more that sound like that. All of the B-groups in England were into similar American music and were playing versions of the same repertoire, and it only took a little bit of digging to find out where that music starts out. That’s where I began to find out about people who came from Mississippi or New Orleans or wherever.

What was the draw to Nashville for you?

Well, I was always interested in the storytelling aspect of song, and I was simultaneously interested in singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and people who had a more poetic view of music than you usually found in a Nashville song. I didn’t necessarily think the two couldn’t live together. To me there’s poetry in Hank Williams, for example. It’s very austere poetry. And then Lucinda Williams in a funny way sharing that name, kind of the right name because she may be the only person with Hank’s kind of economy for just the right amount of words and in exactly the right order.

On your early tours you hit some areas in the States that UK bands didn’t usually get to. What were your impressions?

We wanted to play the South, New Orleans specifically, and if you look at the other bands who were playing then, almost none of them ventured that far away from centers where there was a “punk” scene. We weren’t thinking of ourselves in terms of a punk band; more in terms of a rock ’n’ roll band. The second tour, we opened in Texas and went back to New Orleans. For me, it was exciting to play in these venues that had this musical history. But of course, I also knew the actual history of all these places, and from a political point of view, it was altogether contradictory. I wasn’t all starry-eyed. What I was struck by was that the music always came out of these places where there was a huge amount of tension—you know, there was dark history, loads of unresolved things.

So, traveling the South in the late 1970s, in the wake of the Sex Pistols and sporting the “Elvis” moniker, was there any backlash?

I had been handed this stage name, and then within a couple months of my taking it up and wearing it as a badge of bravado, Elvis Presley died. Touring America and particularly touring in the South, where he is still a deity to some people, was a little strange. We didn’t know if people would think we were being disrespectful or think we were mocking it, and it wasn’t any such thing. He was a one-of-a-kind person I wasn’t trying to be “like” or “about.” It was just a way of making yourself stand out from the crowd. I’m sure there were times when there was a “Who the hell is this guy?” but I didn’t really take it on. We weren’t trying to provoke people.

You must have felt pretty out of your element traveling through the South then. Did anything strike you in particular?

Absolutely. We played Baton Rouge and Mobile on our second tour, and I remember being in this lightning storm. I had never seen anything like it. And I remember we were in the motel, and there were all these women dressed in what were like these girls’ party dresses and big shoes, with these incredibly muscular legs, and I couldn’t figure out who they were. I found out later that they were competition square dancers, so they were all dressed for competition and staying in the room adjacent to us. To walk out of my room into this scene was very strange.

You developed friendships with some of the true legends of Nashville, including Johnny Cash. How did you meet him?

Our producer Nick Lowe had married into the Carter-Cash clan when he married Carlene Carter. We benefited from their generosity when we were in town working on Almost Blue [in 1981]—rather badly behaved young men recording by day and tearing it up by night. And at the end of the nine-day drunk we had been on to make this record, we got a big invitation to go out to Hendersonville to the Cash house, which was quite a daunting thing—to go basically drunk to this huge spread they put out for us—and they welcomed us like members of the family. It was extraordinary. June stood there and said grace, and they treated us like honored guests. It was far more than we deserved, and they could not have been more gracious.

You performed with Cash. Was that intimidating at all?

We recorded a George Jones song together in London in 1979 that I sang harmony on called “We Oughta Be Ashamed,” for which I was unsuited musically, but it was a thrill to sing next to Johnny. When he was subsequently in England, I played with him a couple of times, because he had cut one of my songs by then, “The Big Light.” One evening I got up at the Albert Hall and sang with him. They called me back up to sing “The Circle Will Be Unbroken” in the encore, and after several verses, June said, “Take the next verse,” and I said, “I can’t; you’ve sung all the verses I know.” So she said, “Make one up.” And if one of the Carter family tells you to make a verse up, well, you just do it.

Country music seems to have struck a particularly strong chord early for you, at least as you began recording.

There were particular groups that piqued my interest in the music or instigated that interest. The Byrds did a lot to educate people about country music who didn’t grow up with it. They made it seem hip not by seeming satirical but by actually being sincere with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I wasn’t entirely certain where that music came from, but it was the gravity of a song like “I Still Miss Someone” that struck me, compared with what I knew of Johnny Cash. I was familiar with “A Boy Named Sue” on the radio, but hearing “I Still Miss Someone” was like a revelation for me that this was the same man. I knew “Ring of Fire.” I knew “I Walk the Line,” and somehow “I Still Miss Someone” hit me, and it made me appreciate the soulfulness of his writing as opposed to just this larger than life presence, which he had always seemed to me before that.

You’ve had thirty-odd years of making records and to assemble all these feelings and this understanding. But you arrived in Nashville in 1978 to record with George Jones at the leading edge of your career with the band. Why?

I was writing all different types of songs before [the first album] My Aim Is True, and I was writing songs, I suppose, that were in the thrall of the more traditional American style. I was trying to find my own voice. I look back at the songs I wrote in 1975–1976, and I can say now without any embarrassment: “This song is my John Prine song. This song is my Lowell George.” You know, I was attempting to learn how to write by imitating those people and probably failing. Occasionally I’d write an original one by failing to write like somebody I admired, and that’s mostly how pop music works. Somewhere around 1976, I got the idea that I just needed to sharpen up the whole way I was saying things and it just really wasn’t in my nature to be quite so genial. I was doing that because the people I admired were like that, but my natural temperament wasn’t that genial. There were a lot of things I wasn’t getting across. Clearly the songs weren’t ringing true, because they were too imitative. They weren’t badly written. Some were charming enough. Some had moments, little moments of truth in them, but they were just a moment or two. It didn’t alter the fact that what I had learned from imitating those people was also close to my heart. In one case, I wrote a song called “Stranger in the House,” which is a straight-up, legitimate country song. It definitely doesn’t sound like the same person wrote it who wrote My Aim Is True, and yet it was recorded during the same sessions. Somewhere along the line this recording got into the hands of my A&R man at Columbia, Greg Geller, and he sent it along to [producer] Billy Sherrill, and by complete coincidence they were making a record of duets with George Jones at the time and decided I should sing on the record with George even though I was barely known. I only had, like, one record out, and I was flown into Nashville on my own to sing with George. I mean, that was like, if you were a songwriter trying to get your song into the hands of the best—if not the best country singer, well, certainly by anyone’s estimation the top five—that’s a hole in one, isn’t it? To get your first song in Nashville considered by George Jones is pretty amazing, and it's pretty remarkable to be asked to sing duet with him. It was a terrifying and daunting prospect. So I came, and for various reasons George couldn’t make the session, which was a little disappointing, so Billy Sherrill had me play a guitar solo on the track, and that was my consolation prize. So I was playing on this track with all these legendary country players, and Billy said, “I’m gonna take this Pete Drake solo out and you take a half chorus here,” and I couldn’t believe it. He was going to erase a Pete Drake steel solo so he could put my ham-fisted picking on the record. A year later they were still working on the record when I came through Nashville. We were on the Armed Forces tour, and the pace of things had picked up considerably. We were actually supposed to have Carl Perkins opening for us on that tour. So during the day, I went over and cut the final track with George. Then in the evening, Carl Perkins was supposed to be sitting in with us, and I realized, it’s all beginning to come true, all this. It was very strange.

You’d cultivated this love of the South, and you’d recognized these influences in your life at an early age. Then you travel to the South as a young man. Do you remember any similarity between the music you heard and the way life was actually played out?

I remember going to a bar and seeing Clarence “Frogman” Henry in New Orleans in this small place, and it was just a regular gig, but to see someone I only knew off a record—I mean, that was crazy. It wasn’t like a life-changing experience; it was just like, they really are here playing. And of course, we went to what I thought was the center of New Orleans, Bourbon Street—pure naïveté when, of course, that isn’t the case at all—and made all the same mistakes as all the tourists make. In some places, I came to a town that I associated strongly with musical scenes, and I didn’t find any evidence of the musical myth or legend I had grown up with because it just wasn’t there. They weren’t still down at Hitsville making records for Motown in Detroit. They had long since moved out to California.

By 1981 you had about a three-year uninterrupted string of hits in the U.K., a career in the States that was beginning to chart, and you decided to pursue recording Almost Blue. What precipitated this step out of what seemed to be working for you?

Well, you know, I think that when you get a couple of records in, there’s a danger that you start leaning into expectations. I realized the brittle nature of the “New Wave” sound that was being cemented around us. We just did things in response to the music we liked in our own record collections. They were all jumbled up, and suddenly it became a recognizable sound, and more disturbingly to me, I began to write and arrange with reference to that template. The whole of Get Happy!! [1980] was arranged like that. When I heard the first playbacks of that, it was just dismal, and I thought that it sounded like an imitation of ourselves. So we scrapped the whole session and took a break for a couple of days, and I just went back to my record collection. I had a stack of Stax [Records] singles I had bought, and I just sat and listened to them and thought, “These are the rhythms I want to be using to try to get these songs over so they kind of groove a bit differently.” Suddenly we had a lot of freedom and had things that were fun to play. We had more space to sing some things and less space to sing others. It wasn’t a record that was made in a very orderly, specific fashion, and next thing you know, we have a record that folks say is referencing Stax or what have you, although really when you compare them, they don’t sound anything alike. They just had a feeling of having been made with the influence, and that’s probably the right way about it. Otherwise it would have been too slavish a copy, and that would have been redundant because those records had already been made. When I got to the end of Trust [1981], which actually has a country song on it that I wrote when I was about nineteen called “Different Finger,” I sort of felt like our songs were tricksy and had mannerisms. I had a known style and had done several things to try and get out of the preconceptions of that style, but it was all becoming very self-conscious. And although I enjoyed making them, there was something to cutting those records and playing—the things I was feeling I couldn’t really get out with my own words. I felt better singing other people’s songs at that exact moment, which is really probably why we ended up making a so-called “covers” record [Almost Blue]. The fact that it happened to be the music that at that time I was most absorbed with was coincidental.

So what was the thought process behind the material you assembled for the record?

When we came to record Almost Blue, we first cut two songs. We recorded “He’s Got You” by Patsy Cline and “I’ll Take Care of You” by Bobby “Blue” Bland at the same station, and I thought, “This is the kind of music I want to make, or at least I want to make these two kinds of music join” because they were equally important to me. As it turned out, the record was actually much less ambitious in doing that. Where it did join was in the Charlie Rich songs that we cut. Charlie Rich epitomized that hint of R&B and rock ’n’ roll still in country to me. At one point Almost Blue was so named because it was going to include a lot more songs like “I’ll Take Care of You” and “Gloomy Sunday” by Billie Holiday. It wasn’t going to be an exclusively country record in its original conception. The more I looked at it, the more I thought maybe I was picking too complex an argument for getting across the kinship of all these songs, all these musical styles, so I went with the country thing.

When I came in with my selection of songs for Almost Blue, Billy Sherrill looked at me like I must have been out of my mind because I wanted to cut all of the songs like “Sittin' and Thinkin'.” He engineered the original at Sun Studio, then made the remake on Epic with Charlie Rich. He had made two versions of the same hit with the original artist, so he couldn’t understand why some twenty-five-year-old guy from England wanted to cut this song at all. It was very odd some of the songs that the publishers sent over for my consideration because, as is always the case, the producer puts the word out that an artist is coming to town, and even though I was known as a songwriter, they knew I wasn’t going to write my own material. So he solicited songs from the publishing houses, and they sent an extraordinary selection of songs. I remember tipping out a big garbage bag of cassettes. We listened to a bunch of them, and there wasn’t one song in there I would have sung except one rare Willie Nelson song called “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye,” which Willie didn’t even cut himself until about the late 1990s for Teatro because it was too dark. There was a line in it I remember, “The flesh around your throat is pale / indented by my fingernails.” It was one of his real dark songs from the 1960s that had been on the shelf for years, and I guess they thought, “Well, this guy could cut it.” I cut Leon Payne’s “Psycho,” so I guess they figured I could cut anything.

When the album finally released, there was a lot of dissent from critics and fans. Were you surprised?

From the American side, it was seen as commercial suicide because neither Get Happy!! nor Trust had been as successful as the previous album, and then this one didn’t sell at all. But you have to remember we had a top ten single from Almost Blue [“A Good Year for the Roses”] in England. It was one of our biggest single hits, and not only that, but it was to a completely different audience than had previously bought my records. The people who had bought “Oliver’s Army” were not the same ones who bought “A Good Year for the Roses.” And it was then that I realized that if you limit yourself to the people who start with you and just pander to their expectations because you are afraid to leave the town you started in, what if they didn’t like the real thing about you anyway? What if they just liked your glasses or that guitar you were holding? I mean, not all of them get it wrong, but some people just like things for very superficial reasons, and there’s nothing the matter with that, but why wouldn’t you trust your instincts and trust the fact that people will listen to you sincerely whatever the music is? So there was nothing to fear in making a record that you believed in.

How does Almost Blue play for you now?

I listen to that record now and think, “I can sing these songs better now” because I have lived the life a little bit. I was probably a little too young to be singing that material when I did. It’s almost like when you hear a young jazz singer try to sing “Body and Soul.” They haven’t really lived it. Or somebody at twenty-five singing “September Song.” They just can’t manage the gravity that song calls for. They haven’t had it in their life yet.

The history of the South has some very dark corners and ugly wrinkles you seem to be familiar with. What is it you find compelling about it?

Well, it’s just full of contradiction. People who live outside of America see America as defined by its foreign policy, yet when you go across this country, you can go thirty miles and find fifteen people with totally different opinions about anything. One of the great things about America is that everything you say, the opposite is true. If you say of the South that it’s quite closed and parochial, it is actually also the most wild in terms of imagination. Look at the literature and music alone. How can it contain both realities? That’s because it is [made up of] people, and people are not as easily defined by textbook definitions. In my experience, the more you travel the world, the more you appreciate the differences and the similarities about fundamental aspects—of life and longing and belonging and belief and loss—that are the shared stuff that are in the songs of every nationality, so the wide generalization about any country is a dangerous thing.

But not at all uncommon, and there seems to be a lot of it focused on the South.

I remember the first day I went for a cup of tea in Oxford [Mississippi], and I looked up at the courthouse and saw the state flag, and it seemed very contradictory to me that this very gentle town with a university and an elegant bookshop with all these thoughtful and great writers would coexist [with that]. That coexistence is not always appreciated by people who make generalizations about the South or areas outside of its major metropolitan areas. They don’t realize that there are great writers or take in the literary or cultural dimension of these places. And yet there is the Confederate flag in the corner of the state flag that I would imagine some people take as an affront. But for some other people it contains a different significance, and with all these contradictions you have to really talk about them; you can’t just make sweeping generalizations. It’s very easy to say, “The Confederate flag symbolizes one particular thing in one particular culture,” but it doesn’t necessarily because it contains within it a unique history that’s not the same as another place. [For the South] it has to do with a different and complex history of the way the country was actually assembled and the contradictions within it of the allegiances of those people to their place and to the emerging federal authority against the imperial authority; it’s much more complicated than a flag.

More often than not people tend to make it as simple as that, though, for the sake of blaming or understanding. It’s the oldest trend in the world, and you have obviously thought about it considerably. Does it in some way hit home?

I recorded a song recently called “Red Cotton,” which is from a piece I wrote on Hans Christian Andersen about the relationship between Andersen, Jenny Lind—a Swedish opera singer—and P. T. Barnum, who brought Lind to the United States for what we can now call the first ever concert tour of the country. In this song, after Lind has returned to Sweden, Barnum is reading an abolitionist pamphlet and at the same time cutting up one of her dresses he has retained as a souvenir from the tour and selling the pieces to her fans in Europe because he understood the value of such things. The reason I chose the cotton dress  [for the song] is the whole joint responsibility for what was carried out in these [Southern] fields. It’s not exclusively the responsibility of the planters or white settlers of America. It was funded, encouraged, and somewhat promoted by merchants in England as well. Liverpool was the main port of Western Europe and, ironically, one of the first slave ships to sail out of port in Liverpool was called the Blessing. This massive cotton industry made the fortune of the city where my family was from. The Liverpool town hall has engraved, on the cornices above its entrance, the commodities—barrels and bales—that the fortune was built on, and among those commodities are slave faces. About every five or ten years there is a major civic debate about whether they should be sand-blasted away or should be kept as an acknowledgment of a shameful past. You can’t blame the people of today for the actions of their great-grandfathers, but to eradicate it would be to sweep it under the carpet. It’s curious to me that historically a lot of terrible acts have been covered up in the guise of some twisted form of the export of enlightenment, religion, or what have you, but it’s not terribly different than what we see today going in both directions.

In other words, it’s easy to march under the banner of “For the Greater Good,” which is all too frequently adopted as a type of anthem.

Yeah, but the danger with songs is that if you take one absolute moral position, then it can become a slogan behind which people gather. It’s actually quite difficult to write songs that completely appreciate the entire church that any one artist plays to. It isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to say things. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. I don’t mind if we have some people cheering and some people booing during certain songs, because the debate over those issues is what’s important.