Nothing seems surprising today about Elvis Costello going to Nashville to record an album of country covers under the eye of veteran producer Billy Sherrill (writer of Stand by Your Man).
Fans now expect Costello to slide all over the place, but in 1981 he’d released five albums in four years – all post-punk swagger and punchy verbosity, a long way from the buttercream sorrow of country music. Why was the urban pun-slinger and writer of killer songs turning all rhinestone cowboy? Well, he’d always liked country music, and as we now know, he cannot resist doing something different.
That trip to Nashville was filmed by the South Bank Show, and old footage shows the gentlemanly Sherrill trying to understand the smart-alecky young Brit as they record a dozen country songs in what Costello later remembered as a blur. He also found Nashville to be tense and threatening. “That’s probably the lease comfortable I ever felt in America,” he said years later.
The closest cousin to a Costello song on this album is the 90-second blast of opener Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do). The Hank Williams song is a good accusatory fit, delivered in a furious, shoving rush. All the songs are short, if not sweet: mini soundtracks to the shot lives of strangers.
The hits from this album were track two Sweet Dreams and side two opener, Good Year For The Roses. Both survive the years well, and the tearful petals on those roses haven’t dropped yet.
This was a divisive project: Costello fans didn’t immediately understand why he was recording country; and traditional country fans didn’t much like his Brit shove attitude.
Costello has always been a broadminded musician, even back then when he didn’t quite know his own mind. Listening again all these years later has been a tearful treat.