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Elvis Costello remembers country music legend Merle Haggard ahead of return to Oklahoma City



The death of country music legend Merle Haggard left an impression on Elvis Costello, the prolific London-born Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician and singer-songwriter behind classic late-’70s new wave and punk rock releases My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model.

It is not unusual that Costello would encounter another famous musician.

Costello is a self-proclaimed serial collaborator. Of his more than two dozen career studio albums, six were made with other bands or artists. He has produced for Paul McCartney, The Pogues, The Specials and Nick Lowe (his own longtime producer).

For an Englishman, the musician is also incredibly well versed in classic American country music. Costello released Almost Blue, a collection of classic country covers, in 1981. The album includes a version of “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” by Haggard, the Okie from Muskogee and Oklahoma Music Hall of Famer (technically California-born) who died in April on his 79th birthday from complications of pneumonia.

During a recent Oklahoma Gazette phone interview, Costello reminisced about meeting Haggard. Costello’s acclaimed Detour tour makes a Monday stop at Chevy Bricktown Events Center, 429 E. California Ave.

Distinctive features

Costello told The New York Times in an October 2015 Q&A that while growing up in England, hearing music by artists like Haggard and George Jones was one of the first times the country genre really clicked in his mind. Haggard was long known for earnest storytelling and an authentic outlaw aesthetic Costello could see when the two met at a show in 2009.

“I got a picture [with Haggard], and when he suddenly passed, I found it in my files, and boy, he just looks so great,” Costello said. “He has such an incredible head; his features are so strong.”

The musician was attending a surprise salute to iconic country songwriter Hank Cochran in Nashville. Costello remembers being in a room with other legends like Cowboy Jack Clement and Bobby Bare before the show when he came across Haggard.

Costello, unlike some other A-list entertainers in the industry, is a genuine audiophile and music nerd, even at age 62. Though he counts Haggard as one of his biggest country influences, he said he still sometimes discovers songs in the artist’s back catalogue that blow him away.


“That’s one of the things about him,” Costello said. “You think you know all the songs, and then you find a half-dozen more that you lost sight of.”

In addition to “The Bottle Let Me Down,” Costello occasionally performed “I Threw Away the Rose” at gigs. He remembers his impromptu decision to do the song at a Detour show in San Diego, a four-hour drive from Haggard’s hometown in Bakersfield, California, the night Haggard died.

In recent years, Costello has frequently performed alongside Atlanta roots-rock sister duo Larkin Poe, which is scheduled to open for and back him during his Oklahoma City concert. Costello said they were onstage with him when he launched into his unannounced tribute.

“By the name and title of the tour, you can detour quite literally,” he said. “In this case, I just went straight to the song on the emotion of the night, and it felt like a really beautiful version of the song because it wasn’t considered, it wasn’t sentimental. I didn’t say anything ahead of it.”

Disappearing act

The Detour solo concert series started in April and is partly inspired by Costello’s 2015 New York Times best-selling memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. The artist uses the partially improvised shows to tell personal anecdotes and play whichever songs he feels like performing that day, including big hits, deeper cuts and tributes like “I Threw Away the Rose.”

“You just have to feel for the right moment, and I didn’t repeat that [song],” he said. “I just did it for that night.”

Fans who see Costello in Oklahoma City will see the musician perform in front of a giant screen featuring projected pictures of Costello’s family and personal photos mixed in with other images the artist deems appropriate for this show. No two Detour shows are identical, he said.

“You’re going to see something that you won’t see again,” he said. “Even if we came back and brought it back again next year, it would be different again. We’re all in it together because without the audience, I’m just up there on my own with my songs and a rack of guitars.”

Costello said the stripped-down, intimate shows help him find greater personal meaning in crowd favorites he has played thousands of times before.

Instead of going through the motions, partially hidden behind a wall of sound, Costello incorporates the audience’s energy to complete the show’s equation.

“That’s exactly what this tour is built to do — to come somewhere and not give you what you already know,” he said. “You find people that value the stuff that’s all around them.” 

Print headline: Defining detour, Elvis Costello remembers ‘Okie from Muskogee’ Merle Haggard ahead of Costello’s Monday tour stop in Oklahoma City.

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