When Elvis Costello pitched George Jones an album idea.
DAY TWENTY: THE GEORGE JONES DEMOS
Before Rick Rubin revitalized Johnny Cash’s recording career, Costello tried to do a similar thing for George Jones.
In a November 1992 issue of Interview magazine, Costello conducted a phone interview with the country legend and proposed making a new kind of George Jones album:
ELVIS COSTELLO: Have you ever considered doing an album where all of the songwriting came from outside the country area, even though you might do typical George Jones interpretations? There are a lot of songwriters whose work you’ve never touched, like Hoagy Carmichael, or someone more up-to-date, like Tom Waits.
GEORGE JONES: Hey, I’ve never thought of that, but that’s a good idea. However, it would have to be the kind of material that I could transform my way, to the country style.
EC: Oh, I don’t mean you should start to sing like a jazz singer, and I don’t mean you should make a record like Willie Nelson's Stardust, where he sang standards in the style that they were written. I do want to say, though, that I tend to think of you as an American vocalist — rather than Just a country singer — in the same frame of mind as the great singers in other styles of music, like Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra.
GJ: Thank you. For this kind of record, I would have to have help from someone familiar about this situation, as you are, that could pick out certain types of songs.
EC: Well, there you go, George. I’m volunteering. Anytime you want to do this record. I think it’s the missing George Jones album.
GJ: Great. I’ll tell you what. Let’s get a few songs together and see what we can do with them. I would love for you to send me a tape of some of the things you might like to see on an album like this.
EC: O.K., I’ll send you some things. I may sing them myself, with just a simple acoustic guitar, without trying to copy you — I can’t copy your voice, anyway. Then maybe you would hear them more in the vein of how they could be done.
GJ: O.K., great. When are you coming to the States?
EC: I don’t know. I’m making a record myself next week, and I’ll be coming there on tour next year. Maybe we should try to meet up. It would be nice to see you.
GJ: I got to head out of here pretty shortly and go get my hair done.
Before this interview was even published, Costello went into Attractions drummer Pete Thomas’ home studio with Paul “Bassman” Riley and recorded 10 songs, sending the results to Jones.
Costello later released all of these recordings on the bonus disc of the now out-of-print 2004 Rhino reissue of Kojak Variety, and wrote that he had “no idea what Mr. Jones made of the tape or if he ever even received it. On the next occasion that we performed together, on TNN’s Monday Night Concert with Ricky Skaggs at Ryman Theatre in Nashville, George diplomatically failed to mention these recordings.”
A few of Costello’s “George Jones Demos” trickled out as fairly obscure b-sides during the 90s, but for many years they were regarded as a “lost” Costello album. The Kojak Variety CD reissue remedied this for a short period when Costello included all of them on the Bonus Disc, but it is growing increasingly difficult to find copies of those Rhino editions on the secondhand market, and the added material has remained unavailable via iTunes, Spotify, etc.
Admittedly, they are an obscure corner of Costello’s catalog, but I’d argue that this is some of Costello’s most interesting work covering other artists, actually more compelling within his back catalog than either Almost Blue or Kojak Variety. Although “Costello Sings Some Of His Favourite Songs In The Style Of George Jones” might seem like some kind of awkward gimmick or novelty record, these recordings are terrific, heartfelt and fun.
THE “GEORGE JONES” DEMOS:
It’s probably wishful thinking to imagine that this material would ever see the light of day on a limited edition vinyl release, or that it would be regarded as a legitimate part of the Costello canon and assessed in much the same way Dylan & The Band’s Basement Tapes are within their respective bodies of work. But to hear Costello’s country take on Springsteen’s "Brilliant Disguise" is to hear a passionate and intuitive singer/songwriter/music fan & scholar using the full range of his skill set to bring out a different aspect of these songs.
The ultimate goal may have gone unfulfilled but these recordings more than justify the effort. And Costello’s instinct was probably right— if George Jones had made this record, the 90s might have seen the same kind of popular appreciation for Jones that Johnny Cash enjoyed when he began his American Recordings series.
ALSO: because this is Costello making this record purely for his own enjoyment, in the hopes that he’ll get to hear one of his favorite singers tackle some songs he loves, there is an unmistakable feeling that Costello is having a ball. It’s loose and carefree and was all recorded in a single day— Costello even left in a lyrical mistake in Dylan’s "You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go", enthusing that only Dylan could write a line as great as:
Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine have been like the lanes and rambles
He was then informed that the ACTUAL lyric was “Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.”
In a perfect world, Costello would make a record like this every year— his knowledge of other people’s music mixed with his sense of mischief and adventure would virtually guarantee that it would be tremendous fun. Later in the 90s, he had a bit he would perform during concerts where he would speculate on what songs Elvis Presley would’ve covered if he’d lived, including Costello’s pretty amusing impression of The King belting out lines from U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass.”
I’m not suggesting that Costello turn his party trick into an album. But I would buy that record in a heartbeat.
TOMORROW: COSTELLO GOES CLASSICAL