In honor of Billy Sherrill’s passing, we revisit the unlikely (to some) collaboration that created alt-country a decade before it got a name.

Country music just lost one if its architects — Billy Sherrill — who created more hits than we have room to name and pretty much defined the Nashville sound for a decade. In his memory, we’re reposting this track from Costello’s Almost Blue LP, produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill.

This week’s pick: “How Much I’ve Lied,” from Almost Blue (1981)

Gary Stewart: “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offense to narrow minded listeners” read the the sticker copy for Almost Blue, Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ 1981 album of country music standards laced with a few obscurities.

Despite reaching another level of artistry in the ’70s (and, in retrospect, respectability), country fell victim to prejudice from the majority of the rock audience. With country’s reclamation through roots and Americana a few years away, this album came as a shock to many Costello fans. His four previous albums had been deeply rooted in the confrontation of punk, the brevity and catchiness of the then-inadequately named power pop/new wave, and the reimagined energy of ’60s soul (then considered radical since it was being forsaken and forgotten for disco and funk).

In America, Almost Blue was met with misunderstanding and derision

In the United States (you know, the place where Nashville’s greatest export is considered one of our few original art forms) Almost Blue was met with misunderstanding, derision, and, in a very few corners, appreciation. In the U.K.—where indigenous American music has always been appreciated, even while forsaken at home—the record was a bit of a hit. It’s also an album that many now cite as the one that turned them on to, and made it OK to like, country music. At least it was for me.

“How Much I’ve Lied” was one of the two Gram Parsons songs that fell outside the traditional standards chosen for the rest of the album. Costello credited Parson with introducing him to the validity of country through his work with The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons is also someone music fanatics speak of in reverential tones—like you’re already supposed to know him, or you need to know him to prove you know anything about alt country (which you’re also already supposed to know if you’re a serious music fan, aka music snob). But screw that! If this track is your introduction to Gram Parsons, you’re exactly where I was when Almost Blue came out, and that’s a great place to be.

While I’m disabusing reverence for its own sake, let me add that while I’ve since become a GP fanatic, I like this version better than Gram’s. By trading Parsons traditional fiddle-based honky-tonk rhythms for something more straightforward, Costello finds a more personal and soulful experience of the song. Driven by Steve Nieve’s deceptively simple piano riff, the song’s pain and confessional tone come through, and this really becomes Elvis Costello’s “How Much I’ve Lied.” There’s also a vulnerability here that would slowly surface on subsequent albums and become an expected and essential part of almost all his albums since the late ’80s.

In interviews, Elvis talked about his intent for Almost Blue: to achieve a tension between the emotion of the singer and the more polished aspects of producer Billy Sherrill’s arrangements. In retrospect you can hear that vision realized on most of the album except for this track, where emotion has wrestled polish to the ground.

David Gorman: It shouldn’t have surprised anyone paying attention that Costello would make a country record—he’d been making them since he first grabbed a guitar and hit “record” (see our discussion of “Poison Moon”). By 1979, he’d already written a song for and recorded with George Jones, then and still country music’s best singer (arguments not accepted). So when he showed up in Nashville to make an album with the producer who made Jones’ biggest and most beautiful records (…again, arguments not accepted), it really shouldn’t have shocked fans who’d already heard “Stranger in the House” and “Radio Sweetheart” in concert and on b-sides.

It’s as if Elvis wanted to prove to the world that Gram Parsons could have been one of Music Row’s finest writers

But there are still a lot of surprises in “How Much I’ve Lied,” which is, to me anyway, the best country record Elvis has (yet) made. The first surprise is that, on an album that covers country’s royalty with hits from Patsy Cline to Hank Williams, Costello slides in a song cowritten by an outsider hippie/trad-country revivalist (Gram Parsons) and a future Prince collaborator (David Z). It’s also a surprise that of all the songs on the album, “How Much I’ve Lied” is the one that gets the most thorough overhaul, sounding almost nothing like Gram’s original honky-tonk shuffle. It’s almost as if Elvis wanted to prove to the world (or maybe just to Billy Sherrill, then king of Nashville) that Gram, given the chance, could have been one of Music Row’s finest writers.

So out go the fiddles, finger-pickin’, and high-lonesome harmonies, and any other attempts to echo country’s  past. Instead, “How Much I’ve Lied” is built on an ear-worm of a piano melody that just might have been inspired by that softest of ’70s hit singles, “Music Box Dancer,” and performed with all the clean precision of Nashville’s finest session players. And while Gram’s vocal is so firmly and consciously rooted in the honky-tonks that never really took him in, Elvis delivers this without a trace of twang. It’s almost a country ballad rebuilt for the English music hall crowd. Yet, for all the song’s uprooting and replanting, it blossoms into something even more beautiful, heartbreaking, and, yes, country.

So while flying to Nashville to record country standards with country music’s biggest producer might have seemed like an indulgence for Elvis the country fan, “How Much I’ve Lied” shows that his understanding of what makes a song “country” is more nuanced than any of the marketing execs who mocked or apologized for the album he made there. It’s a song that in another universe—or maybe just released under a name that didn’t carry any expectations—would have sounded perfectly at home drowning sorrows in dusty dive bars across America.

BONUS CUT: We can blather on all we’d like about the hows and whys of Elvis making Almost Blue, but this little seen TV show from 1981 is a real-time look behind the scenes. You get Elvis’ own take on Nashville (“I find it much more threatening than New York”) and its music, Billy Sherrill at work behind the boards and at play behind the wheel of his boat, rare footage of the Attractions in the studio, and loads of great music from the sessions that you’ve never heard before. 

 

And, of course, now that we’re back to talking about Costello songs that HAVE been released, we can return to our playlist of Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week, already in progress…