What in the world is Elton John doing at the CMA Awards? Don’t rocket — er, knock it, man. He’s a lifelong country fan who can enthusiastically converse about everyone from Jim Reeves to Gary Allan. He’ll partner with Dolly Parton during the all-star ceremony on Tuesday night (Nov. 15) in New York City, accompanying her rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Plus, his music video for “Turn the Lights Out When You Go” is currently in rotation on CMT. Here, the world’s most prominent music fan talks about Floyd Cramer’s personal touch, the Nashville mindset and why country music is so important to the British.
You’re performing with Dolly Parton at the CMAs. Have you ever worked together?
No. It’s a dream come true for me because there are so many legends in country music, but a lot of them are dead. Dolly is very much alive, and I’m a huge fan of hers. To be able to sing and perform with her and to be on the CMAs is exciting for me because as a musician, it’s a part of my music that I love. I love country music, but I’ve never actually participated in anything to do with country music. I did a CMT thing with Ryan Adams, and I really loved that. This is the first time I’ve really been exposed to that country music audience and, to be with Dolly Parton is such a buzz. I’m really excited.
She might be the only person who’s more flamboyant in dress than you.
Well, it’s going to be a battle. (laughs) It’s going to be so much fun. I get to meet those other people that I haven’t met before who are going to be on the show. I met Brad Paisley the other week, and it was great meeting him. I get to meet another section of people that I really don’t come across because we don’t move in the same circles. I know Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. I’ve done stuff with them. But the rest of them I really don’t know, so I’m so looking forward to coming to New York and meeting all these people.
You seem to be a fan of every kind of music. Are you a fan of country?
Always. I grew up as a kid listening to Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Hank Locklin, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard. Yes, I’ve always been a fan of country music. Floyd Cramer was one of my big inspirations as a piano player. I remember “Last Date” and “On the Rebound” were two things I could really play. He had a certain unique style, which is so difficult for a piano player to establish. You listened to a Floyd Cramer record, you knew it was Floyd.
Country music and soul music are so closely knit, and I was a big soul fan as well. Soul and country are so close together. I’ve always loved country music. I love hillbilly music, I love bluegrass music. It’s just the musicianship that I love. The guitar pickin’ and the stuff like that. There are so many great musicians around. … When Ray Charles, for example, did the country meets soul, that was the perfect marriage of soul and country. And it worked so well. It’s a genre of music that I think every British rock ’n’ roll artist loves. The Stones love country music. The Beatles loved country music. We all love country music because it’s so simple, it’s direct, and it’s melodic, and it’s heartfelt. It’s an extremely important genre of music. And to us British folks, it was a very important part of our lives.
I think sometimes Nashville as a community has an inferiority complex about country, that it is somehow not as worthy as a genre as others. Sometimes, I think that people who come from Britain, like you, revere it more than the people who are making it.
Oh, I think that’s the case with soul music, too. The people who used to come to Britain on tour, soul music-wise, had bigger fan followings in England than they did in America. It’s the musicianship we love and the singing and the harmonies. You know, the banjo pickin’ and the mandolin stuff.
The Dillards did an album called Wheatstraw Suite, which is one of my favorite albums. It was mostly Beatles songs, and the first thing I did when I came to America was go and see them. And I played on an Earl Scruggs record which for me was one of the most fantastic experiences to meet him, because of The Beverly Hillbillies, which was a huge television show. We all loved it because of the music.
And I think you’re right. I think Nashville — the country music fraternity as it were — they’re very insular. They keep themselves together, and they don’t realize how much. There’s rock ’n’ roll, too. Some of these bands rock. You know, they really rock, and they’re really so tight. We love the musicianship involved. I’m doing this with Dolly, and I’m appearing on the CMAs, and I’ve been in the business — in America, this is my 36th year of coming to America — and I’ve never done anything like this before, which is crazy. Because I love country! The two things never combine — rock ’n’ roll and country — as much as they should do because we’re both doing the same kind of stuff. I mean, they do it in their way, and we do it in our way, but it’s basically the same stuff.
There are some great artists in country. We love it, and they don’t understand that. They keep very insular, but so many people love country music. I mean, look at the album sales the first week of a Gretchen Wilson record or a Big & Rich record or Brooks & Dunn or Alan Jackson or George Strait. Of course, Garth Brooks was the one who really exploded country, and Shania Twain, I think. Like 10 or 15 years ago when country really exploded on the radio. Since then, it’s really come a long, long way, as far as radio programming and stuff like that.
I mean, I’m the first person to go out and buy the new Gary Allan CD because I love Gary Allan. I know what happened to him with his wife, and I want to hear the songs that he’s written about his wife, and it’s an incredible CD. So they don’t realize how much we respect them.
Your video for “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave” is now on CMT, and it’s a very country song. I almost hear a little of that Floyd Cramer influence.
Well, it’s a country song. “Turn the lights out when you leave” is such a country lyric. At one point, we were thinking of doing a country album or other people covering our songs and doing like a compilation album of other artists doing our songs in a country way. So I wrote this song as a duet originally, and then I thought, “You know what? I’m going to sing it on my own because I love my demo so much.” We didn’t even really change the demo that much for the album. We just put John Jorgenson on pedal steel. It’s really the original demo that’s on the album, kind of remixed. It’s definitely a country track.
When I was a kid, I used to play in the pub in England. My big song was “He’ll Have to Go,” the Jim Reeves song. And this song is a similar thing, in a way. It’s not as slow as that, but we’ve written so many different country songs. We wrote a song for Tammy Wynette, “A Woman’s Needs.” We’ve had “Country Comfort,” we’ve had “Dixie Lily.” I think if you look on all of our albums, there’s always a country type song on any of our albums because [lyricist] Bernie [Taupin] is such a country fan. On his answer phone, you ring his ranch, and he’s always got country music on it. It’s the only thing he listens to in his truck. It’s such an important genre of music.
Terry Bumgarner is a producer for CMT Insider.