Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello hardly qualify as bonafide mainstream country artists, but each has absorbed traditional Southern music, written country songs and had a long affinity with Nashville.
Revered as two of the best singer-songwriters of their generation, Williams and Costello recently paired up to showcase their country-flavored work and talk about their country influences on the debut episode of CMT Crossroads. The hour-long show airs at 1 p.m. ET/PT Sunday (Jan. 13) and repeats at 8 p.m. ET/PT Sunday (Jan. 13) and 12 a.m. ET/PT and 8 p.m. ET/PT Monday (Jan. 14).
The premise of CMT’s new monthly series is to bring together artists from diverse musical backgrounds and, as host Stan Lynch says in the premiere, “watch them look for and hopefully find the country they have in common.” Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock recently taped the second installment of CMT Crossroads, set to air Feb. 17.
Sarah Brock, producer of CMT Crossroads, says a lot of thought and planning goes into the pairings to make sure the artists have musical common ground, mutual respect for each other and potential chemistry. Once the artists come together, though, Brock creates a relaxed environment for the talent by encouraging artistic freedom, spontaneity and creativity.
“I really don’t put any constraints on them at all,” Brock says, “and I don’t have any expectations. I approach music shows that way because they’re artists; my job is to set it up so it’s the most comfortable for them and make sure they look good and sound good. We just truly, truly try and let them be comfortable, because that’s when the best moments of the show happen. We try and make sure they have time together — so they can get comfortable with each other and comfortable with the songs.
“Lucinda is known to be shy, and I thought she was absolutely charming with Elvis,” Brock adds. “I thought Elvis brought out more of her personality than we’ve usually seen because she was so comfortable with him. … It’s nice to show these kind of relationships, because it’s unique to see artists sing together and converse like this [on television].”
The stars of the debut episode sing two duets, Costello’s “Poisoned Rose” and a fiery version of Williams’ “Changed the Locks.” They provide backing vocals for each other on four songs — including a Rolling Stones cover — and Williams’ road band plays throughout. The only solo performance comes when Williams agrees to do an audience request for “Crescent City.”
Williams, a native of Louisiana who lives in Nashville, is an outsider on Music Row and mainstream country radio. However, she commands the highest respect in roots and rock music circles, and a handful of country artists have recorded her songs. Emmylou Harris has long championed Williams, recording “Crescent City” and “Sweet Old World.” Mary Chapin Carpenter recorded “Passionate Kisses,” earning Williams a Grammy for best country song in 1993.
As a recording artist, Williams won the Grammy for best contemporary folk album for her 1998 CD, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Upon the album’s release, Rolling Stone called Williams “America’s greatest songwriter” and described Car Wheels on a Gravel Road as a “masterpiece” and “heartbroken country classic.”
On Jan. 4, Williams received four Grammy nods for this year’s awards, airing Feb. 27 on CBS. Her nominations include: best female pop vocal performance (“Essence”), best female rock vocal performance (“Get Right With God”), best female country vocal performance (“Cold, Cold Heart,” from the Hank Williams tribute album Timeless) and best contemporary folk album (Essence). She also contributed to Ralph Stanley ‘s Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, up for best bluegrass album.
“I do write country songs,” Williams insists during CMT Crossroads. “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 .”
Based in Ireland by way of England, Costello emerged as a chief songwriting voice of the late ’70s punk and new wave explosion. He quickly shed that tag, though, and evolved into a songwriting icon in the pop field. He is revered as one of the most innovative and influential songwriters since Bob Dylan.
George Jones recorded Costello’s “Stranger in the House,” and Johnny Cash covered Costello’s “The Big Light” and “Hidden Shame.” In 1981, Costello recorded Almost Blue in Nashville with legendary country producer Billy Sherrill . The album features Costello interpreting songs by Hank Williams, Don Gibson , Gram Parsons , Charlie Rich and other country greats. His version of Jones’ “Good Year for the Roses,” from the same album, was a hit record in England.
Costello’s passion for country music dates back even further, as he explains in the liner notes for Almost Blue. “I had played Hank Williams songs in the folk clubs and pubs, while, as daft as it may sound, I recall being advised [in 1977] to remove The Best of George Jones from the [tour bus] sound-system in case it confused visiting journalists.”
During the audience Q&A on CMT Crossroads, Costello recalls meeting Cash at Nick Lowe’s home studio. Williams talks about her early admiration for Bobbie Gentry . Elsewhere in the show, Costello and Williams discuss their high regard for each other.
“The characteristics of her voice — married together with the incredible economy of her writing — make her so unique,” Costello says of Williams.
Williams was “blown away” by the opportunity to perform with Costello. “I grew up listening to his songs,” she says, “and all of a sudden he’s honoring me by sitting in with me at this show.”