Elvis Costello, American Idol
As luck would have it, this edition of SPECTACLE turns out to be the perfect episode for the week in which the United States installs a new President. Elvis Costello’s guests this time around share powerful ties to the roots and heritage of American music—country, most obviously, but also folk, blues, and jazz.
Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash have written some of the most unforgettable songs in the country canon; his “Help Me Make it Through the Night” was in fact named the greatest country song of all time in the insightful 2003 book Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles. John Mellencamp’s work is based firmly in rock & roll tradition, and in recent years, he’s explored more acoustic-based, time-honored forms. And while Norah Jones is often classified as a jazz singer, her music in fact shares more with country and blues than with pure improvisation, as her collaborations with Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson reveal.
As a rocker, Elvis has obviously drawn on American music from Day One—though, as he has pointed out, the first album he bought was With the Beatles, so perhaps his earliest exposure to rock was a step removed from its Stateside origins. But it didn’t take long for him to begin plumbing the depths of America’s soundtrack—especially the music of the American South. Get Happy!! (1980) was a rapid-fire adaptation of old-school R&B (the single, “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” was a Sam and Dave cover).
Almost Blue, in 1981, was an even more surprising step—an entire album (recorded in Nashville) of uncompromising, traditional country music songs by the likes of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and Elvis’s longtime favorite, George Jones. In the UK, a sticker was even slapped on the LP that read, “Warning: This Album Contains Country & Western Music and May Cause Offence to Narrow-Minded Listeners.”
Since then, Elvis has returned repeatedly to styles closely associated with the United States. He made this journey most explicit with King of America in 1986, building an album around a more acoustic sound and working with archetypal US players from Elvis Presley sidemen James Burton and Jerry Scheff to David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and master New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer.
Though echoes of country and rockabilly continued to turn up in Elvis’s writing and his choice of covers (Johnny Cash recorded Costello’s “The Big Light” in 1987, and Roy Orbison covered “The Comedians”; Elvis contributed a version of “Sleepless Nights” to a Gram Parsons tribute record). The last few years, though, have seen a particular surge in Elvis’s work with American roots music. The 2004 album The Delivery Man took him deep into blues territory both stylistically and geographically (it was cut in Oxford, Mississippi) and prominently featured vocals by Emmylou Harris.
Elvis was nominated for an Oscar for “Scarlet Tide,” from the film Cold Mountain, which was co-written by T-Bone Burnett and performed by Alison Krauss. Just within the last year, Elvis recorded the raucous, George Jones-and-Tammy Wynette style duet “Jailhouse Tears” with Lucinda Williams, and his latest album, Momofuku, includes songs written with Loretta Lynn—and with Rosanne Cash, one of tonight’s esteemed guests.
But, you ask, what about the sound so often called “America’s Classical Music”—jazz? Isn’t that part of the Costello arsenal as well? But that’s a subject for another SPECTACLE, still to come…
— Alan Light
Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.