On January 3rd, 1982, Elvis Costello played the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. It was his first and only U.S. date that year and one of just three in the States in support of his LP Almost Blue, the Billy Sherrill-produced disc of country covers released in October 1981.
Costello later played the Opry’s original home at the Ryman Auditorium in 1999 and 2004, but his first-ever Grand Ole Opry appearance finally took place on February 18th, 2006. At the time, the Opry was telecast each week on GAC (Great American Country), and would occasionally relocate from the Opry House to the Ryman, last the long-running live radio show’s official home in 1974. Although titled Grand Ole Opry Live, the episode that featured Costello along with Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, was broadcast on February 28th. But the most unusual aspect of this particular episode was that it was presented in black-and-white, something the Opry’s various television incarnations hadn’t been seen in for decades.
In addition to the vintage look of the show, which also featured original TV ads for Martha White flour, the material the performers chose was more classic than modern. Harris opened the show with “Wheels,” the Chris Hillman-Gram Parsons tune that closed her 1975 sophomore LP for Warner Bros., Elite Hotel. Harris sings lead while Costello harmonizes, and Welch chimes in on additional harmony as Rawlings plays electric guitar. Harris and Costello then perform another of the duets she originally sang with Gram Parsons, the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant classic, “Love Hurts,” and after a break return for the Johnny Cash ballad, “I Still Miss Someone” and the Louvin Brothers’ mournful “My Baby’s Gone,” featuring Fats Kaplin on mandolin. Following a pair of gospel tunes by Harris, Welch and Rawlings, Costello returned for “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face,” penned by Bill Anderson and included on the Englishman’s 1995 covers LP The Kojak Variety.
Introducing the show’s riotous penultimate number, “Mystery Train,” the musician — born Declan Patrick McManus — tells the audience, “I didn’t always have this name that I’ve got now. Somebody had it before I had it, so we figured we should do one of his songs, what do you say?” Recorded by the “other” Elvis in 1955 for Sun Records, the tune has been cut by dozens of acts throughout the next six decades, including Neil Young, the Jerry Garcia Band, and in 1986 by Harris, offstage for this rendition.
When Harris returns, Costello and guests close the show with “The Scarlet Tide,” the Oscar-nominated song he penned with T Bone Burnett which was featured in the film, Cold Mountain (and which he later did as a duet with Harris). With the Iraq war still raging, Costello prefaced the beautiful tune by saying, “We want to send this one out to any of you that have got people overseas, and we hope you see them very soon.”
Costello’s most recent release, 2013’s Wise Up Ghost was another experiment across genres that featured The Roots as his collaborators and backing band.