Friday, October 4, 2019

Strange/Weird: Stranger In The House

Elvis Costello: Stranger In The House
[purchase the expanded My Aim Is True]
[purchase My Very Special Guests]

I’m still being influenced by watching the 16 plus hours of Ken Burns’ Country Music, so here’s another post that sort of ties into it. One of the ways that Burns breaks up the flow of narration over still pictures or showing snippets of films and videos is through brief commentary by a number of different talking heads. And while seeing Marty Stuart, or Rosanne Cash, or Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard discussing the music—or even lesser known figures such as Ray Benson or Jeannie Seely—didn’t seem strange because they were from the country world, it was initially a surprise when Elvis Costello popped up. Until I quickly remembered the Costello had long been a country music fan.

Despite the fact that Costello was, from the start, marketed as an “Angry Young Man,” and as part of Stiff Records new wave sound, his debut, My Aim is True had some very country-ish sounds—starting with the fact that the backing band was made up of members of country-rock band Clover, including future Doobie Brother John McFee playing lead and pedal steel guitar. But they decided to keep the two most country sounding songs off the album—“Radio Sweetheart” (which was the b-side to the “Less Than Zero” single and “Stranger in the House,” which was included as a bonus single in the early pressings of Costello’s second, and much less country sounding, album, This Year’s Model.

Only a few years later, Costello released “Almost Blue,” a collection of country covers which seemed shocking at the time, but has probably aged better than anyone thought.

“Stranger in the House” could pass for a classic country song—it has all of the right themes, and it was written by Costello with George Jones in mind. Jones is someone who I was aware of, understood that his voice was legendary, and knew that he had a serious alcohol problem. But watching Country Music, it became clear that Jones was country music incarnate. Born in Texas, he started playing guitar as a child, and fell in love with country music listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and he left home at 16 to be a musician.

Married four times, his third wife was country superstar Tammy Wynette, who had her own issues, and their relationship, while commercially successful, was “stormy,” as Jones’ alcohol and drug use spiraled out of control and led to mental illness. And yet, his talent was such that as bad as he got, he kept making comebacks—sometimes even with Wynette, even after they D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D.

Jones recorded “Stranger in the House” as a duet with Costello for a 1978 album, My Very Special Guests” which featured duets with singers from country and other genres.

It set the stage for another #1 hit in 1980, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and more recordings, despite continuing substance abuse issues. But in 1981, Jones met the woman who would become his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, and she helped him (mostly) clean up his act. He continued to record and perform (and complain about the state of country music), until his death in 2013.

When you listen to the duet version of the song, it is striking how good a song it is, while Costello tries mightily, it is clear that vocally, Jones was at a completely different level.

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