(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Proving once again the value and worth of back catalog, two new reissues lend weight and context to two different careers. Early albums from Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello are now available in remastered form, with additional, previously unreleased material. I don’t know why more record labels — especially those in Nashville — don’t take more advantage of their catalog material. It doesn’t cost much to put out, and there’s a ready-made audience waiting for it, in most cases.
Nelson’s The Troublemaker (Columbia Legacy), his first gospel album, was first released on Columbia in 1976, although it had been recorded three years earlier for Atlantic. At the time, Nelson had just been signed to Atlantic by Jerry Wexler when the label wanted to launch a country division. The Troublemaker was set aside in favor of Nelson’s two brilliant concept albums for Atlantic, Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie. Then Atlantic’s country division was shut down, and Nelson left for Columbia, where he shortly recorded his breakthrough work Red Headed Stranger in 1975. Nelson had retained the rights to The Troublemaker, and after Stranger’s success gave him some clout with Columbia, he had his harmonica player Mickey Raphael remix the tapes. The album went on to be No. 1 for three weeks in 1976 on the Billboard country albums chart.
The Troublemaker shows him in fine form, cutting 11 mostly traditional gospel songs, with Arif Mardin producing. The accompaniment is mostly spare and much of the time consists of only Willie’s guitar and sister Bobbie’s piano playing. An exception is the title song, which Nelson performs solo. Bonus tracks here include live versions of that song plus album cuts “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” and “Amazing Grace.” Those were recorded at the Texas Opry House in 1974.
Pretenders to the world of country music have come in many stripes and disguises, but seldom has there been one with such zest for the trip as Elvis Costello. Just as he has zoomed in and out of the worlds of pop, power pop, new wave, rock, blues and showtunes, Costello’s expeditions into the country music zone have been high-powered, almost kamikaze missions. Unlike many other day-trippers into country, Costello has been a contender. He’s had the true love for the music, he’s got the vocal chops, and he’s written country. The results have been uneven but well worth the journey.
Unlike many fading rockers or poppers eternally re-emerging in Nashville who whine that they were “always country” or simper about “rediscovering my country roots,” Costello has demonstrated a true country soul. And a true country disinterest in those who questioned his country bona fides. Meaning: Like true country stars, he didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.
Costello came to Nashville because of a rejected song. For his 1977 debut album My Aim Is True, he had recorded the song “Stranger in the House,” which he had written with George Jones in mind. His record label, Columbia, rejected it as “too country” for a rock album, but Columbia A&R man Greg Geller in New York forwarded the cut to Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, who decided that it — and Costello — would be perfect for an upcoming George Jones duet album. And it was. Thus began several Music City trips for Costello. (Not included on this package is demo material Costello recorded in 1975 with his country-rockish group Flip City, including versions of “Third Rate Romance” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” None of that has ever been released commercially, though bootlegs exist.)
His country ventures are now collected on the new double CD Almost Blue (Rhino Records), which consists of a remastered reissue of his 1981 country album of the same name, with a second bonus disc containing 27 other Costello country recordings. Rather lively liner notes by Costello himself accompany the package.
Like many early rockers, Costello (born as Declan MacManus — there’s a star’s name for you) was enamored with the legend of Nashville but thought of country music itself in terms of the Beatles’ covering “Act Naturally.”
He was converted to country — as many other rockers have been — by the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. From there, he worked his way through the country canon.
In looking for a Nashville producer for Almost Blue, Costello realized a genuine affection and respect for producer Billy Sherrill’s work, though Sherrill was and continues to be dismissed by country purists as too commercial. Costello writes that “some people expressed surprise that I didn’t approach a wilder individual to produce the record, someone like Cowboy Jack Clement, but I had a genuine love for the tension between the emotion of the singer and the smooth backings of Billy Sherrill recordings.”
The songs on Almost Blue are a fascinating mix of what a reasonably hip British rocker would love about country music circa 1980, including a new wave reading of Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me,” the fairly obscure “Success” (Loretta Lynn’s second single) and the Gram Parsons songs “How Much I Lied” and “I’m Your Toy.”
Costello added this warning sticker to the album: “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.” Reviews, in fact, were very mixed. Costello did have a big U.K. hit with his take on Jones’ “Good Year for the Roses.”
“Psycho” is Costello’s triumphant career moment. The great Leon Payne song was added to Almost Blue in its 1994 release, along with 10 other bonus tracks. Written about the Texas Tower mass murderer Charles Whitman, it marks a strange departure for the skilled country writer of such classics as “Lost Highway.” The bonus CD here also includes Costello’s studio version of “Psycho,” as produced by Sherrill. But Costello’s live version recorded at the Palomino remains one of the most captivating examples of a striking country song ever recorded. If it doesn’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck, you are not breathing.
He has sufficient cojones to confess that when Johnny Cash invited him to do a duet of “We Oughta Be Ashamed,” which was recorded as a get-well card to be sent to the ailing George Jones, the pairing was a musical mismatch. “I sounded like a whimpering schoolgirl next to John,” Costello writes in his liner notes. That Costello-Cash collaboration is heard publicly for the first time here. Costello was also punched out in a barroom by singer Bonnie Bramlett when he made a drunken, ill-advised slur against Ray Charles. He publicly apologized and said he was mainly trying to irritate Bramlett — which certainly worked.
Costello has had what it takes to be an original country music contributor. His CMT Crossroads show with Lucinda Williams was an intriguing performance. I for one would welcome another Costello trek back to Nashville. Has he made any difference? I think so. Keeping Leon Payne’s “Psycho” alive is worthwhile in itself.
Country is as country does. And as it sounds. For my money, this package is one of the most interesting, if checkered, recent releases in country.