Johnny Cash’s late career renaissance was partially fueled by an impressive collection of unconventional cover songs. The Man in Black had a career-long track record of choosing just the right left-of-center artists to interpret as only he could. His 1965 Orange Blossom Special album contained three songs by a then up-and-coming 23-year-old folksinger named Bob Dylan; his only Billboard 100 Top 10 hit came via his take on Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969; and he led off his 1987 album Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town with a cover of Elvis Costello’s “The Big Light” 30 years ago this week.
Cash’s decision to cover “The Big Light” was atypically interesting on many counts, one being that Costello had just released the song himself a little over a year earlier on his King of America album. According to Cash’s recollection during an Austin City Limits episode aired before his album’s release, the song was in the running for him to record before he heard Costello’s finished album. “I got this song before it was released on his King of America album,” Cash told the Austin City Limits audience, going on to note the, to him, novel nature of the song’s source: “This song was written by, of all people, Elvis Costello.”
Costello’s version of “The Big Light” had the same quirky energy and punk attitude of his new wave beginnings, but a recent split with his backing band the Attractions had him fashioning a more acoustic-based instrumental approach on King of America with T Bone Burnett and members of Elvis Presley’s legendary TCB backing band (guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff). By contrast, Cash’s take on the upbeat “facing the morning after” tune was time-stamped with a mid-Eighties Countrypolitan sheen of twangy electric guitars, bombastic horn blasts and backing vocals courtesy of the second-generation Carter Family (who also joined Cash for the Austin City Limits taping). Of course, as it is with all of Cash’s recordings, the most captivating sound is his own booming voice, his charmingly drawled delivery tying it all together.
At the time that both artists each took turns at “The Big Light,” Cash and Costello had already crossed paths quite a few times, thanks in part to their mutual friend (and Cash’s one-time son-in-law), notable singer-songwriter-producer Nick Lowe. According to the self-penned liner notes for Costello’s expanded reissue of his Almost Blue album, the pair first met during the Christmas season of 1979 at Lowe’s home studio in London, recording a version of George Jones’ “We Oughta Be Ashamed.” That track would not officially see the light of day until 2004 (on the reissued Almost Blue‘s second disc of bonus tracks), partially due to the fact that Costello describes his performance as sounding “like a whimpering schoolgirl next to John.”
The summer after the release of Cash’s “The Big Light,” the duo had the chance to actually perform the song together onstage at London’s Mean Fiddler club when Costello showed up as a special guest during a Carter Family concert. They repeated the scene almost two years later during one of Cash’s return trips to England when he played at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Since that performance with Cash in 1989, Costello has only pulled “The Big Light” out once in almost 30 years – during the encore of his 2009 performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the site of countless historic performances by The Man in Black himself.