The video above is a serious must-watch for fans of Elvis Costello’s polarizing 1981 country covers album Almost Blue. It’s a 31-year-old episode of the UK's ITV's South Bank Show, and it chronicles Costello as he cuts the record in Nashville’s famed Columbia Studio B with Billy Sherrill.
The episode, or more documentary, directed by Peter Carr, provides an intimate look behind the scenes of a cocksure Costello, biting at the ankles of country music as a chain-smoking, speedboat-skippering, ever-bearish-but-professorial Sherrill humbles and disarms the smart-alecky Costello with his dry wit and first-hand knowledge of something the singer still obviously knew in concept only. The doc also gives snapshot after snapshot of a radically different Nashville and the Music Row circa 1981, along with Costello’s commentary on the city.
“There seemed to be a lot of very unhappy people,” Costello says. “Maybe it’s because they get a lot of people coming with expectations which are unfulfilled or something, but it’s a very tense kind of place. … That’s probably the least comfortable I ever felt in America, I find it much more threatening than New York or any part of London.”
Not only did the doc capture the recording of Almost Blue, it influenced the process as well. In the liner notes to the 2004 Rhino reissue of the record, Costello wrote that the filming complicated the two-week recording session and affected his and the band’s behavior:
Some of the above antics and postures might have been a little exaggerated due to the fact that a documentary film crew was capturing most of the proceedings. … You might say that hubris and alcohol play no small part in [the film]. Peter filmed us in the studio and making a brief but bizarre visit to the seedier bars of Broadway, long before it became the more welcoming tourist destination of today. Most of all he filmed me looking very pale and hungover, talking earnestly about country music.
“I had the idea of what I felt about those songs and for better or for worse recorded [Almost Blue] the way we did — something of a blur,” Costello told the Scene in 2010. “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 [Gram Parsons or Emmylou Harris] did for you’ … 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.”
Hat-tip to songstress Caitlin Rose for hipping us to the clip.