Photo by Marco Bakker
First in three EPs and now, at year’s end, those three compiled into an album, Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish have engineered one of the more curious, supposedly niche but actually widely-appealing projects of this mad year.
The husband-and-wife team who have long worked as a roots/Americana duo under the name My Darling Clementine, reconfigured Elvis Costello songs – some familiar, several known only to deep cut fans – into country duets. Old school style.
Like Tammy & George, without the drunken brawling, or Loretta and Conway without the comic twang; like Johnny & June without speed and forbidden love, or The Civil Wars without, well, the uncivil breakup. Like Keith Urban and … actually, no, nothing like Keith Urban at all.
Called Country Darkness, it’s a cracking set: finding new ways to hear these songs, and new approaches even to songs that had country roots themselves. And like Emma Swift’s marvellous reimagining of Bob Dylan, Blonde On The Tracks, it blurs lines of demarcation between fans, devotees and newcomers.
But you might still ask why would a duo with plenty of their own songs and at that point no public clamour for the concept, conceive of a project like this?
“Why not?,” says Dalgleish with a laugh. “Pure self-indulgence enjoying the opportunity to work with our favourite songwriter’s material.”
She’s only partly serious, as King explains that it came from an idle thought one day to put together a Spotify playlist of his favourite Costello songs which could be classed as country or country soul.
“I thought this would make a great album, I’m surprised Elvis hasn’t put an album out with this - of course you could do the same with other genres he’s worked in - and then I thought, maybe we should do it.”
He’s quick to point out that it’s not like My Darling Clementine have always stuck to straight lines anyway.
“Even after our second album, we made a song-and-story album with Mark Billingham, the British crime writer – another Elvis maniac - based around a number of our songs and contributions from Graham Parker and Brodsky Quartet,” he says. “But once we got Steve involved with this, then it was like, we better see this thing through, let’s do a couple of songs and finish it.”
Dalgleish steps in to say that “I think it was a more positive approach than he has just described it: ‘we might as well just see this through’. We were very excited to have Steve on board and we thought this is a project that three of us can really enjoy and embrace. It was a very exciting thing to get our teeth into.”
It's time to introduce the third key member of the project, Steve. As in Steve Nieve, keyboard player of some renown, composer, man of many names (from birth name Nason, through Steve A’Dore and Nieve, then Maurice Worm and Norman Brain, to, often, The Professor) and Costello’s right hand man through almost all his multifarious projects since joining The Attractions in 1977.
While Dalgleish and King had met him once or twice before and had friends in common, including members of Nick Lowe’s band who played on the first MDC album, it was still an out of the blue pitch to him, just after the Grammy award-winning Look Now album Nieve had made with Costello and the rest of his second lost-lasting band, The Imposters.
An online post from the Paris-based Nieve wondering “who should we work with next?” caught King’s eye and “I emailed him and said, you should work with us”. Nieve readily agreed. Indeed, at one point all of The Imposters - including the US-based drummer Pete Thomas and bass player Davey Faragher - were in line to work on the record, though logistics, geography and finance eventually ruled that out.
By contrast, jumping on the train to Paris, and later, exchanging tapes online, was no trouble at all. In fact, Nieve and MDC were somewhat ahead of the covid trend of international border closures creating remote partnerships and “musical tennis”. Their working method would see Nieve send piano parts over, King and Dalgleish heading into a Sheffield studio near their home to build a track around it, and then they’d send it back to him for extra keyboard parts.
Out of those would come things like the fairground organ behind the fast-spinning wheel of The Crooked Line, which in its original form on Costello’s 2009 album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was an easy bluegrass mountains dance around the front parlour.
“Some of the outtakes that Steve sent were just fantastic: mad little bits and one song every two lines it would change,” says King. “It was like he sent us a jigsaw with all these bits to be assembled. A lot ended up in the bin, I must admit, but that was how it was.”
It may seem odd that Nieve would be interested in reworking songs many (but certainly not all) of which he had played on originally. Been there done that? But apart from Country Darkness showing the seemingly endless opportunities for imagination and rethinking, Nieve has regularly performed Costello songs solo or completely rearranged in other ensembles.
And for writers and collaborators like Dalgleish and King, getting his wholehearted involvement and creativity, was exciting. Within reason.
“It was exciting, but we didn’t always like his ideas,” says Dalgleish with a bit a spark in her eye as King chuckles beside her. “It was very much a collaboration. Much as I am a complete mad fan of Steve, and we both absolutely admire him and love his work with complete respect for him, the nature of a collaboration is that it doesn’t work if one person calls the shots.”
Or indeed plays all the shots. Dalgleish, who once performed a theatrical show based around Costello songs sung from a woman’s perspective, and stepped in to perform Costello’s part in a performance of the semi-classical Juliet Letters which he wrote with The Brodsky Quartet, has been enjoying the assumptions made by many listeners and critics that the elegantly simple playing on Indoor Fireworks is Nieve’s work, when she played it.
“Yeah, everything that Steve contributed that’s on the record we 100 per cent loved, but it was a two-way thing and we had ideas and we worked through them just like any writing team would until we were all happy,” Dalgleish says. “We were excited, yeah, but I think so was he.”
When thinking about Nieve ideas refashioning their own, King singles out I Wear It Proudly, from Costello’s proto-Americana 1986 record King Of America. His initial thought had been to do it in the style of a Johnny Cash boom-chicka-boom song, whereas Nieve was hearing it more like Bruce Springsteen’s quietly atmospheric Streets Of Philadelphia: slowed down, a moody synth figure in the background.
“He was right,” says Dalgleish.
Costello nerds would know that the original version of I Wear It Proudly did not feature Nieve, or indeed any member of Costello’s then band, The Attractions, with the album made by a cast of rather biggish names in American music, including members of the other Elvis’ TCB band. While the record was/is a stunner, the exclusion of The Attractions was something which maybe still is a sore point with Pete Thomas and Nieve, who along with then-bassist Bruce Thomas, sat for some weeks in an LA hotel waiting for their call to the studio.
So, yeah, maybe Nieve had had some 30-years of pent-up ideas for that song.
In any case, something else to note about this new version of I Wear It Proudly is that if you didn’t know better, you might believe it was a rye-and-gin-soaked Tammy Wynette & George Jones classic. But while those artists might be the touchstones for us, that’s not really how the album plays out: obvious routes were more often avoided than followed.
For example, Different Finger moves from its original straight country to something more like Tex-Mex, Stranger In The House, (which was originally a duet with George Jones in 1979), picks up a touch of rumba and gets closer to the Mexican border than Tennessee, and Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone is played as a deep soul ballad, providing a stylistic link to the original My Darling Clementine song on the record, Powerless.
If you’re wondering, choosing to include their own Powerless was no mere token.
“The bottom line is, regardless of our love of Elvis Costello’s work, and joy in reinterpreting a favourite songwriter, at the end of the day we are songwriters, we are not a covers band. So somehow, even though it’s Elvis, our favourite artist, and even though it’s Steve Nieve, we still feel a part of us needs to be on there,” says Dalgleish. “Certainly for me - Michael can’t comment as he pretty much wrote that - I think it’s a fantastic song and you deserve to sit alongside Costello’s work.
“Which obviously is the ultimate compliment I can pay my husband. And they don’t come around very often.”
They both chortle at this. “That’s the only [compliment] this year, and you are present for it,” says King.
Sounds like a country duet in the making don’t you think?
Country Darkness is available now through Fretsore Records and on all streaming and music services.