In advance of his new Nashville-recorded album National Ransom, Elvis Costello looks back on his three-decade love affair with Music City 

Elvis Is King

Elvis Is King

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Q. Is that really your favorite venue?

It's pretty much up there in the top five, I've gotta say. I've had more good nights in there — more enjoyable nights playing, and some really special [shows, such as] the night The Fairfield Four came out and played with us. Just great shows. Even a couple of years ago I came and opened up unannounced for Bob Dylan. It's just a great room to be in, it's undeniably one of the great rooms. There's a handful of others that when I see them come up on the itinerary I go, "Great! We're gonna have a night there with any luck." Emmylou [Harris] came out and sang with us one night; I was her guest at the Opry. It was pretty unimaginable for me that I would be on the Opry, you know?

Q. Do you remember the first time you played the Ryman?

Um, I don't know what year it was. Of course, when I first came to town it wasn't being used, it was closed. When we toured with Almost Blue I actually played the Opryland theater [the Grand Ole Opry House].

Q. Yeah, they actually just reopened it. It was damaged in the flood.

Really? Well, the only time I ever played it was back in '81. Since then, if I've played in town I've tended to play the Ryman.

Q. Talking about the early Nashville days, there are two things that I've heard that I'm wondering if you can confirm or elaborate on. The first is the story of how you saw Bruce Springsteen at Municipal Auditorium, and how that inspired the song "Temptation" on Get Happy.

That was when I came to town to record with George Jones. That was sort of a consolation prize for the fact that George didn't make the first session. I was just there and I'd done my guitar solo, and [someone] said, "You know, Bruce Springsteen is in town. Want to go see him?" So I went to go see Bruce, and that was the first time we met.

Q. Wow.

It was just before Darkness on the Edge of Town came out, but I don't think his following was so solid in Nashville. I remember being in the audience thinking, "He's having to put these songs over." It wasn't like [when] I saw him just a little while later in New Jersey, and it was a rabid audience that knew every word of every song. In Nashville, there were definitely people who were seeing him for the first time.

I wasn't actually seeing him for the first time, because I had seen him on the Born to Run tour in London. But I was seeing him play in America for the first time, so it was really strange — because I had [thought] that he was beloved everywhere. And of course then you realize that America's a huge country and there are regional preferences, and he wasn't yet completely over the top in Nashville. He was still convincing some people —and that, I suppose, is what brought out the idea of "Temptation." Because I was looking at myself going, "What am I going to have to do to get across?" (laughs)

Q. Exactly. And then I guess it was a year or two after that, but I heard this story claiming Carl Perkins was supposed to come on stage here to play with the Attractions but bailed.

Carl was supposed to be the opening act on the Armed Forces tour. He had a record out on Don Arden's label, Jet Records, and — this is the way I heard it — for whatever reason, they decided not to support Carl on that tour. In those days, quite often, the labels would put some money into an act coming out on the road, tour support. I don't think it happens so much these days.

Anyway, it didn't happen at the last minute, and we asked if he wanted to come and play when we got to Nashville. We were playing [War] Memorial Hall or something. And he was there with his guitar and everything all ready to go. We never had a rehearsal or anything: We were just going to play "Mystery Dance," because we figured it owed a little bit to one of his songs, you know? (laughs)

Anyway, when we came off — we didn't often do encores in those days — he'd gone. So I think he must been horrified by the way we sounded. (laughs) We did sound quite a lot different [from] our records. We didn't sound I guess anything like he really imagined we'd ever sound.

Q. When you first came to Nashville, how did people react to you? Were people suspect? Did they see you as some kind of imperialist, or did they embrace you?

I don't think anybody noticed, to be honest. I met some songwriters and other musicians, I was staying at very much a rock 'n' roll musician's hotel, Close Quarters — I remember Gregg Allman was in there. We were fairly kind of pleased with ourselves in those days — quite a lot of drinking — so I don't suppose we were the easiest company.

And it's very well documented that Mr. Sherrill didn't know why we wanted to record those songs. But he did produce the record, and we had a big hit in England with one of the songs, which was strange. We ended up introducing Jerry Chestnut's "Good Year For the Roses" to an awful lot of people in England who wouldn't have heard George Jones' version, who just weren't country music fans at all.

I had a sort of status as a pop singer on the basis of those first three or four records. [Trust], the album before, [hadn't] done anything really commercially — [then] we suddenly had a hit again with a country song. So some people were like, "What's this? It's terrible. Why is he doing this?"

[But] some people got that it was sincere. Of course, I hear the performances now and I [would sing] all those songs differently because of the benefit of experience. But it was a truthful record emotionally, and they were songs that I loved. I probably would do a lot of things differently now, but it's pretty amazing really now when I think about it, (laughs) just the audacity of coming and doing it, you know?

It happens a lot with a lot of the records I've made that have been different in some way to what I've started with. Quite often, the reaction initially is great horror and "This is the end of the world!" and "How can he be doing this?" And then people calm down a bit and listen to what the record actually is, rather than thinking about what it isn't. And then they start to hear the music inside it. It may not be everybody's taste, whether it's that record, a record of piano ballads, or something else. I've done a lot of different kinds of records, and they've all been the ones I wanted to make when I made them.

Q. That explains the disclaimer that appeared on Almost Blue: "WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners."

Well, yeah. That was my former manager making a bit of mischief, because he knew there were gonna be people that would be completely up in arms about it. There are much more things to be upset about than what's on a record, you know?

Q. Sure. You talked about the exposure you gave "Good Year for the Roses" and how it was a hit. Through listening to your records, I've been exposed to many artists I might not have otherwise heard, just because they're an influence to someone I like.

Well, that's the way the process works. I mean, a lot of people in England caught on to rhythm and blues because of the Rolling Stones, and the people that the Rolling Stones learned from were playing Howlin' Wolf songs. When I was a kid I listened to all the music from the '60s, and one of my favorite groups was The Byrds. When The Byrds made Sweetheart of the Rodeo — which was a very big shock to anybody that'd been growin' up on "Eight Miles High" — they were doing all these really futuristic sounding, beautiful harmony records with really strange chords. And suddenly they do [the Louvin Brothers'] "The Christian Life."

At first, it was a lot to take in. And then I started to really listen to the songs and started to get curious — like, "Who are these Louvin Brothers? Who is this Merle Haggard?" I knew who Johnny Cash was — but truthfully, most of the hits I knew on the radio were kind of novelty songs. The deep songs weren't as well-known to people of my age. Once I started to hear "I Still Miss Someone" and these other songs — goodness, it was just the same as discovering James Carr or some great soul singer, you know? It was really a door opening.

And that thing keeps happening. I'd followed Gram Parsons into his solo career, I'd followed his recordings, I'd followed Emmy. Here we are all these years later, and I have people come up to me and say [of Almost Blue], "You did that same thing for me that that record did for you" — which is what you just said. And I don't think I take any particularly great pride in it. I just think, "Well, that's what you should do" — if you like it, tell somebody else, you know? Even if that means that you have to illustrate it in your own, kinda, screwed-up version of it, if your heart is really in it and you're singing it the way you believe it.

There are plenty of examples of that. There's lots of music you can hear that's drawing on the riches of all of this music. There are such rich scenes around all cities now, because every piece of musical history is available to you. It could be part of that new idea you've got. There are lots of people ready to listen with great understanding to some of the oldest music. Not everybody wants to be Sugarland, you know? Or some kind of current band. They're listening back to the Delmore Brothers, or the Louvins, or Stonewall Jackson, and you can hear people today who are drawing from the strengths of those records.

They won't all be in the charts: You might have to go and dig 'em out. But there's a place for pop music and whatever accent it has, and there's a place for the other stuff, which is going into the soul of it. If it becomes too self-conscious, then it becomes a self-contained style, which cuts it off from really flowing. Which is where I suppose I am at a slight advantage, because I stand outside of the tradition. I can sing with people, I can play with great musicians — as I've done on these last two records — but singing about things that come from completely other experiences.

I love to listen to all sorts of music from all sorts of different kinds of life. But I can only write the things I imagine myself. Some of them have occurred to me, and some of them are observation. Obviously, as a writer you can do that — you can travel and put yourself in the clothes of somebody else and try to put yourself in the mind of somebody else. That's a lot of what the songs on this record are.

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