Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Stranger In The House - Elvis Costello Goes Country

Elvis Costello series, Part 3 of 3.

In 1981, Elvis Costello was coming off an incredible string of legendary rock albums (My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, Armed Forces, & Get Happy) when he decided to release an album of country covers called Almost Blue. Talk about a potential career killer! There are a ton of music fans whose favorite kind of music is "anything but country." So, for a lot of Costello fans and rock fans, this was one to skip.

Apparently, the reaction of the country music world was even more negative. In the book Written in My Soul (by Bill Flanagan, 1986), Elvis explained:

"I made the country record, Almost Blue, to get away from songwriting. I didn't anticipate the violent reaction some people would have to it. It became sort of a joke. We put a sticker on it saying, 'This record may bring out a violent reaction in narrow-minded people.' I'd completely underestimated the false and hypocritcal way some people in America assume ownership of this music. People who couldn't give a damn about it, actually, who couldn't name five country songs. It annoyed me because I probably cared more about the songs I was singing than the bloody hacks in Nashville. Billy Sherrill, the guy who produced it, turns out yards of music every week. He's a complete and utter hack. Hasn't got an ounce of feeling in him."
I guess Elvis isn't one to mince words.

By the way, Billy Sherrill was the guy who co-wrote Stand By Your Man, so he can't really be "a complete and utter hack," right?

All controversy aside, and 26+ years later, I think Almost Blue is a good album. Check it out for yourself and let me know what you think. Here's one from the album alongside the original from George Jones:

Elvis Costello - Good Year For The Roses (buy album).

George Jones - Good Year For The Roses (buy album).

The Rhino double CD version includes lots of interesting bonus material. Can you imagine Elvis Costello and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing a Flying Burrito Brothers song? While it may sound kind of scary, it's actually really good. The dramatic arrangement lends itself perfectly to the drama of Gram Parsons' lyrics:

Elvis Costello - I'm Your Toy (Live) (buy album).

Flying Burrito Brothers - Hot Burrito No. 1 (I'm Your Toy) (buy album).

Costello dabbled in country even before Almost Blue. One of my favorite Costello compositions is a song called Stranger In The House about a relationship gradually falling apart. It first appeared on the 1980 compilation of Costello's "odds and sods" called Taking Liberties. I'm impressed by the songwriting on this one.

The first stanza sets it up nicely:

This never was one of the great romances,
But I thought you'd always have those young girl's eyes.
But now they look in tired and bitter glances,
At the ghost of a man who walks 'round in my disguise.
The real payoff comes in the chorus:

There's a stranger in the house no one will ever see,
But everybody says he looks like me.
Elvis Costello - Stranger In The House (buy album).

If you buy the Rhino double CD version of Almost Blue you can hear Elvis perform this one as a duet with George Jones.

And now for a bit of personal history. The first song that I remember turning me on to country music was Elvis Costello's version of George Jones' tune Brown to Blue, which I heard sometime in the early 1980's when I was still just a kid. It features this great line: You changed your name from Brown to Jones and mine from Brown to blue.

Elvis Costello - Brown To Blue (buy album).

Well that's it for the EC series. Hope you liked it.

10 comments:

Dave said...

Thanks for the Elvis series. Almost Blue is a sentimental favorite, as it came out when I was a punk fan re-discovering country music and showed that the two worlds could co-exist.

Ramone666 said...

Same here, with the difference that I was a punk fan just discovering the world of country. Great album, introduced me to George Jones. This Years Model remains my fave though...

Dave said...

Absolutely. Almost Blue is a sentimental favorite; This Years Model is my favorite without any qualifier.

paul said...

I agree with you guys. This Year's Model (or maybe Armed Forces) is my favorite, but I have a sentimental attachment to Almost Blue, which led me to so much other good music.

b said...

always improving. love the new 'play now' buttons. i'm your toy... amazing, song title renaming. must. buy. almost. blue.

Anonymous said...

elvis costello was not punk! jesus . . . he can't decide what he wants to be but he never was punk or country . . . .
the hickoids from texas . . . now there was a country punk band . . .
i saw george jones about 5 years ago when everyone was still all ga ga about the war in iraq . . . he had flag waving and film and patriotism galore . . . but when i bought my george jones shirt and got it home it was made in Ubikistan (sp?) . . . wow!
i'm tired of all this crossover shit . . .i'm from the south originally and growing up in the 80's my george jones loving grandpa and my hank williams loving grandma called all my punk records "nigger music" and made me throw them out . . . it's time to quit mixing our music . . .
i'm sorry i'm having a bad day . . . i'm just tired of all these people like merle haggard backpeddling and changing sides and becoming liberal and all these punk rockers becoming rich and buying mansions and reforming to make money while they sing about anarchy. . .
bad day bad mood, i'm gonna make this anonymous . . . next time i'll not be so mean . . .
great site . . . i've spent the last 4 hours looking through it.

Paul said...

Anonymous,

I enjoyed your tirade. Really, I did. Glad to see people passionate about these issues. Plus, four hours on the site is pretty good!

I don’t remember calling Elvis “punk,” but if I did I was using the term loosely. But I would say that some of his songs are “country,” whether you want to call him country or not. The T-shirt story is kind of funny. Sorry, I think a lot of things are funny.

I’m not sure what you mean by “it’s time to quit mixing our music.” Why don’t we just forget about labels and just let people make whatever kind of music they want? I’m from the North and I love Southern music. Am I “allowed” to? Sometimes I get the feeling from Southerners that only they can love “their” music. Doesn’t make any sense to me. If its good music, people are going to like it—no matter where they are from or how old they are. And some of us like more than one kind of music. I’m a big fan of jazz, which is something that I really haven’t gotten into on this site. And I like all kinds of rock, but especially the “crossover” stuff that straddles the line between “country” and “rock.” So my brain is mixing all kinds of music up inside. Don’t see anything wrong with it. In fact, a lot of great music came from mixing styles. Jazz came from playing African music on European instruments. Rock and roll came from mixing honky-tonk and R&B. I don’t think Hank or George would have thrown away your punk records. Hank was kind of a punk in his own way.

Now about Merle, I’m not sure how much of a conservative he ever really was. Researching “Okie From Muskogee” I found out that he and his band wrote the song as kind of a joke. They were smoking pot in their tour bus when they drove by the “Muskogee” sign. One of them blurted out, “They don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” and the next thing you know, it’s a hit song. I’m going to do a post on it one of these days. Also, Merle hung out with Gram Parsons back in the day, so he wasn’t a hippie-hater.

I agree with you about the hypocrites, but what can they do? Only a few of them can manage to make good songs about their money (i.e., Joe Walsh, “Life’s Been Good To Me”), so they have to keep singing about what got them there in the first place. I wouldn’t expect them to turn down the money.

Thanks for commenting. Please check back!

Paul said...

P.S. Just checked out the Hickoids on myspace. Good stuff! Here's the link for anybody reading this (but not you, mom): Hickoids' Myspace Page

Anonymous said...

it's me again. . . no, you are right . . . i was in the south and they thought i was listening to michigan punk bands and i loved it . . . and they said i was a race traitor . . . . . . i totally agree with you. . . what i mean by mixing is when you have a ska band and then they play something like punk rock. . . (i guess if they gave kudos it would be o.k.) but i saw a band i'm too embarrased to say i saw and they said they put the k into s"k"a and this was a white boy band in the 90's. . . i've wondered how jamacain artists felt about their music being turned into noisy punk and seeing these dudes make all this money . . . that's what i mean by mixing . . .
i guess also (and remember i'm white and confused ha ha ha) but having grown up in the south i don't believe anybody has the right to play the blues but southern blacks. . . so when i see northern (i went and saw the blind boys of alabama open for some 19 year old yankee chick that played the blues) people acting like they are southern it bothers me . . .
my own problem. . . my own resentment . . .
i don't know enough about merle haggard . . . i saw him once and they were selling "america! love it or leave it" t-shirts at the show . . . and i can't figure out why i can't love it and stay . . . ha ha ha . . . i rant all the time . . . it's this goddamned insomnia . . . i've still been looking over your site . . . i'm learning a ton . . .
neal skok is o.k. but he's overbearing sometimes . . . he's the one that put on that sonics reunion show in new york . . .
you don't have to publish any of this . . . i have insomnia and i'm just rambling . . . i have put out a gazette since 1984 (i won't call it a zine) on punk bands and now it's just a rant . . . people hate it . . .
your site is just so fucking good! the specials? god i hadn't heard ghost town since i was a teen . . . man what a great record.
one of the reasons i don't think you should publish this is because of the swearing . . . .
i'm fishspit the librarian assistant by the way . . . my best friend played in a band in michigan called the crucifucks . . . did you ever hear them.
your site is incredible . . . i just keep looking and looking and looking . . . this is a treat for me as i'm cat sitting and i don't own a computer but these people do.
i better try to go to bed . . . the rising storm site was awsome . . .
i just rememebered that elvis costello used to produce the specials . . . i better not be too hard on him. i just think wreckless eric is so much better but when he came to a bar up here there were only 13 people . . . i can't figure people out . . . o.k. i've wasted enough of your time . . . thanks for the site . . . fishspit out.

paul said...

Thanks for the kind words about the site. I have insomnia too. The comments publish automatically. Hopefully neal skok isn't too sensitive (or doesn't google himself). Well, it's almost morning here, so I better try to get some shut eye.