Essentials: The Top 10 Elvis Costello Americana Songs

Many of you will be used to seeing Elvis Costello watching the detectives, refusing to go to Chelsea or joining Oliver’s Army but in 1981 Costello released the album ‘Almost Blue’, an album of country music, which displayed the intent for Costello to leave his new wave, angry young man image behind and move onto other genres. Over the next four decades, Costello produced some of the most engaging and lyrically inspiring Americana music and worked with many revered musicians and singers. That is not to say he forgot his roots, returning often for some raucous rock’n’roll when the mood took him. Americana music influenced Costello throughout his career. His 1980 album ‘Get Happy’ was his Motown and Stax album. Costello’s first release ‘My Aim is True’ hints at his love for American-influenced music. The 2001 Demon Records release of the album featured an outtake of ‘Stranger in the House’ played in a country style which Costello recorded with George Jones for Jones’s album ‘My Very Special Guests’ along with versions of others as honky-tonk demos. There is so much to choose from when it comes to this Top Ten and it sparked memories of the old songs; if we had listened carefully we would have known what was to come. Listen to ‘Radio Sweetheart’, try ‘Shot With His Own Gun’ and of course the previously mentioned ‘Stranger in the House’. Costello played the songs of Hank Williams during his folk club days as Declan MacManus and there is the infamous story where he was asked to remove ‘The Best Of George Jones’ cassette from the tour bus on the ‘Live Stiffs 1977 tour‘ in case it confused the guest music journalists.

Number 10:  ‘Good Year For The Roses’ (1981)

Taken from the album ‘Almost Blue’ Costello donned the bootlace tie and got down to work with legendary producer Billy Sherrill who had worked previously with Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Sherrill was frustrated and bemused by Costello’s song choices for the album and there was tension in the studio., Despite that ‘Good Year For The Roses’ was to give Costello his first Top 10 hit for 18 months. Written by Jerry Chestnut and originally cut by George Jones, Costello and the band faithfully take us through this classic break-up song that perfectly suits Costello’s voice.

Number 9:  ‘Farewell OK’ (2022)

Fast forward 41 years and that old riotous Costello is back with the opening track from the album ‘The Boy Named If’. The album received critical acclaim and was nominated for ‘Best Rock Album’ at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards. Outlaw country-like guitar drives the beginning with Costello spitting out the vocals like he was in his twenties again. It felt right to include a track that covered Costello’s old self in a new light and sprang out of the speakers grabbing the listener by the ears. “Ran my hand in the rhythm along the ballroom wall, Felt the rumble of the bass through the entrance hall”; the old adage ‘Play loud’.

Number 8: ‘Suit of Lights’ (1986)

The classic ‘King of America’ album could easily have provided the full Top Ten, but some restraint had to be shown. ‘Suit of Lights’ is the only track on ‘King of America’ played totally by Costello’s original band, the Attractions. Lyrically it has been said that it is about his father performing in working men’s clubs, giving it his all, to be ignored by the patrons only there for the beer. We have all been to those venues where the clink of glasses, laughter and conversations from less interested patrons drown out the poor artists doing their best on stage. “And I thought I heard “The Working Man’s Blues”, He went to work that night and wasted his breath.” Equally, the lyrics would work for Elvis Presley and the Vegas years. Arguably Colonel Parker driving his main source of income into the ground but in his ‘jump’ suit of lights.

Number 7: ‘Complicated Shadows’ (2009)

Written originally for Johnny Cash, Costello released two versions of the song: the ‘Secret, Profane & Sugarcane’ one is chosen here. The other appears on the 1996 album  ‘All This Useless Beauty”. This was a truer representation of how Costello originally envisaged the song sounding as this takes a country twist rather than the 1996 rock version. Lyrically about murder and redemption, produced by T-Bone Burnett, this version is played acoustically with Jerry Douglas on dobro. Cash never did record it. Strangely enough, he did record the track ‘Hidden Shame’ for his 1990 album ‘Boom Chicka Boom’, which is also on ‘Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.” Costello dusted off the song and recorded his version. ‘Complicated Shadows’ was always a favourite of mine

The slow-build guitar ends in a swashbuckling  country riff as Costello sings “You can say just what you like in a voice like a John Ford film, Take the law into your hands, You will soon get tired of killing, In those complicated shadows.”

Number 6: ‘National Ransom’ (2010)

Politics is never more than an ‘F’ beat away in Costello’s work and ‘National Ransom’ written in the wake of another world monetary collapse and recession is a biting comment on how we are all left carrying the can for the people we entrust to lead us responsibly. As the liner notes say “1929 to Present Day” it’s been going on far too long.  Lyrically hitting home with the lines “They’re running wild, Just like some childish tantrum, Meanwhile, we’re working every day, Paying off the National Ransom.”  Opening the album in style Costello is joined by Jerry Douglas again, this time on lap steel, T-Bone Burnett on reverse piano and Buddy Miller adding vocal harmonies. All in all, it is a riotous attack on those in charge.

Number 5: ‘Either Side of The Same Town’ (2004)

‘The Delivery Man’ album landed in 2004 and features the Imposters throughout with guest vocalist, AUK favourite Lucinda Williams featuring on one track and Emmylou Harris on others. This is Costello’s country-soul record and this track delivers. The album was originally conceived as a concept album about a love triangle between Geraldine, Vivian and the delivery man. Harris plays the part of Geraldine and Williams plays Vivian. The idea was diluted along the way, however enough remained for the story to remain intact. ‘Either Side Of The Same Town’  is a country ballad with Steve Nieve’s piano to the front picking out a beautiful melody. “Now it’s hard to keep ignoring, Someone you recognise, And if I seem contented, It’s only my disguise.” There is a ‘Live In Memphis’ DVD out there, and if you can find a copy it is well worth hunting down. The set list recorded at the ‘Hi-Tone Café’ in Memphis includes an excellent rendition of ‘Either Side Of The Same Town’ and Emmylou Harris joins Costello on stage for a good portion of the set.

Number 4: ‘The Scarlet Tide’ (2004)

Sometimes the simpler something is, the more impact it has. Joined by Emmylou Harris for this version of the song Costello wrote for the film ‘Cold Mountain’ this final track from ‘The Delivery Man’ captures the song in an Appalachian, rural sense. Alison Krauss recorded the version for the film with a soft brooding piano accompaniment. Costello uses just a ukulele and voice. It may remind you of ‘Smiling Shore’ by June Tabor. Costello is a Tabor fan and used to include the song in his solo outings. ‘The Scarlet Tide’ perfectly captures the futility of war. Co-written with T-Bone Burnett who always said it was an anti-fear song. Joan Baez later recorded her version for her 2008 album ‘Day After Tomorrow’.

Number 3: ‘Country Darkness’ (2004)

More from “The Delivery Man” for which there are no apologies. Joined by former Doobie Brother, John McFee, on pedal steel guitar this track oozes class. Another country ballad, full of intrigue, opens with the lines “This tattered document, A mystery you can solve, Some burnt out filament, Flies buzzing around the bulb”. Costello is almost pleading as McPhee’s pedal steel cries in the background.

Number 2: ‘I Still Have That Other Girl’ (1998)

What could be more American than Burt Bacharach. Costello often covered ‘ I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’ in his live shows many years before the collaboration. Rather than just releasing an album of previous classics, ‘as we all know where that leads’, Costello worked with Bacharach and released twelve original songs. It was a difficult choice as at least one deserved ‘Top Ten’ billing. They all exude a certain quality and you could argue why not ‘Toledo’, why skip ‘This House is Empty Now’ and it is not an easy decision. “Despite the temptation, I try to be very strong, In my reluctance it seems a surprise, It’s not that I don’t want you, But I just, Know I must hesitate Because I still have that other girl in my head”  Powerful and brilliantly orchestrated. There is the feeling of nostalgia, lost love and regret throughout. Lyrically you could spin this around and say it captures a person on the precipice of an affair and the other girl is the reason to back off. Either way the song displays an emotional depth and the rise and fall of the music could be synonymous with a person’s feelings at the start of a new relationship or the end of an old one.

Number 1: ‘American Without Tears’ (1986)

That brooding cover, Costello wearing a crown along with his John Lennon-like glasses. No title, no band name. In 1984 Costello released ‘Goodbye Cruel World’. It came at the end of his 10-year marriage, financial woes and the end of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley the album was possibly too slick. The band toured with the album and then Costello went solo. It was for these solo outings that he teamed up with T-Bone Burnett. Things were beginning to change, and mid-set Burnett and Costello got together as ‘The Coward Brothers’ to sing duets of ‘I’m Ragged But Right’, ‘Baby’s in Black’, ‘She Thinks I Still Care ‘ and ‘The People’s Limousine’ which was later released as a single. Costello (Howard Coward) was jovial, joking with Burnett (Henry Coward) and having a great time. A definitive moment for Costello, cumulating in the release of ‘King Of America’ in 1986 with T-Bone Burnett at the production desk. They would work an write together for many years to come.

The album artist was splendidly billed as ‘The Costello Show’ and was arguably tremendous from the off. Turn over the vinyl, remember it was 1986, and the opening guitar strums of the chosen number one begins, taking you into ostensibly another time but really into emotions, relationships and failed romance.

The G.I. bride angle is only one of the intricate emotions experienced in the song when love fades and you end up with a big reality check. Real life takes over rather than the fairytale. “In Revlon and Crimplene, they captured my heart, To the strain of a piano and a cocktail murderess, She was singing that, ‘It’s Too Late’, I agreed with that part, For two English girls who had changed their address’.

The lyrics indicate we have moved on over 25 years since the war as Carole King sings ‘It’s Too Late’. Poignant, emotional and brilliant listen after listen.

“Now it seems we’ve been crying for years and for years, Now we don’t speak any English, Just American without Tears.”

About Andy Short 13 Articles
You would think with all the music I listen to I would be able to write a song but lyrically I get nowhere near some of the lines I've listened to. Maybe one day but until then I will keep on listening.
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Andy Davidson

Thoroughly enjoyed playing your selections Andy. You just forget how brilliant he is.