Costello, Williams Tape Crossroads Session for CMT

View the CMT Crossroads flipbook.

“All I can say is, look out Conway and Loretta .”

Elvis Costello
issued that humorous warning during a recent television taping with Lucinda Williams . The two songwriting icons achieved their own Conway-and-Loretta-style chemistry, singing together, backing each other, swapping stories and talking about their country influences for what will become the first installment of a new series, CMT Crossroads, airing Jan. 13 on CMT. Stan Lynch, former drummer for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, will host.

Taped Nov. 5 in New York, the hour-long show is in post-production now. Editing decisions will determine the song sequence and final contents of the show, but by all accounts Costello and Williams gave producers plenty to choose from.

The CMT Crossroads series seeks to demonstrate the intersection of country music and other genres such as rock, rap and pop, by bringing together artists who come from diverse musical backgrounds. Hank Williams Jr. and rap-rock star Kid Rock will collaborate in mid-December in Nashville for a future episode.

Lucinda Williams is best known to mainstream country fans for writing Mary Chapin Carpenter ’s “Passionate Kisses,” which earned Williams a Grammy for best country song in 1993. She also has penned songs for Patty Loveless (“The Night’s Too Long”), Emmylou Harris (“Sweet Old World,” “Crescent City”) and Tom Petty (“Changed the Locks”). As a recording artist, Williams won the Grammy for best contemporary folk album for her breakthrough 1998 CD, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Highly respected in roots and rock music circles, Williams mostly has been a Music Row outsider. Her sound is too raw and edgy for today’s refined country airwaves.

“I do write country songs,” she insisted at the taping, following a performance of “Blue,” a quiet weeper from her current album, Essence. “I just don’t write country songs that get played on country radio.”

Costello jumped in with his own assessment of contemporary country radio: “Yeah, they sort of have forgotten what they are.”

“See, that’s the whole point of [this show],” Williams replied, “how you define country music. In my mind it’s Hank Williams [Sr.] and Loretta Lynn.”

During the shoot, Williams cited Bobbie Gentry as an early influence. Gentry is the writer and performer of the 1967 country-pop smash “Ode to Billie Joe,” which features vivid, haunting Southern imagery, a characteristic that also has become a trademark of Williams’ work.

“It was really original stuff, the stuff she was doing,” Williams said of Gentry. “She was writing her own songs. She was one of the first female singers I was influenced by who sang in a lower register. I felt real comfortable with that, because before that I was listening to singers like Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. They all had these beautiful high voices. Then here comes Bobbie Gentry, and she had this lower, kind of smoky voice. It was kind of country, but it wasn’t typical country. It was a blend. I just really identified with it.”

Costello, a native of Liverpool, England, lives in Ireland and is hardly a country artist. The singer-songwriter long has had an affinity with Nashville, however. He recorded his 1981 country covers album, Almost Blue, there with legendary country producer Billy Sherrill.

During the taping, Costello also recalled meeting and working with Johnny Cash and George Jones , who have recorded his songs, and he talked about his own admiration for Hank Willams Sr., praising “the economy of expression in his songs and the true, soulful feeling that comes in them.”

Costello covered “Wild Horses,” a country-flavored Rolling Stones number, for possible inclusion in the show. He also treated the New York audience to a pair of his own songs — “Indoor Fireworks” and “Poisoned Rose” — from his rootsy 1986 album, King of America, and he debuted a new, unfinished song that he said he is writing for Lucinda Williams to sing someday.

Inevitably, however, not all performances will make it into the show’s final cut. More details about the actual contents of CMT Crossroads’ first installment will be available closer to air date.