Mellencamp Stars in “Spectacular” Costello Special

Last night’s taping of “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…,” which featured John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Norah Jones, was a departure from the interview/performance format of previous installments starring the varied likes of Elton John and Smoky Robinson. Rather, it took on the nature of the Nashville “guitar pull,” where a panel of songwriters sits around swapping songs and stories.

As Cash noted, the set-up likely originated at her father Johnny Cash’s house, where legendary songwriters and performers like Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Tammy Wynette and George Jones, and Kristofferson would drop by for such informal gatherings (“I was scared to death then and I’m scared to death now!” said the ever-unassuming Kristofferson).

Costello didn’t mean to turn the evening into a tribute to Cash’s father, but it was inevitable that Johnny Cash was a big part of it. Group sing-alongs on his classics “I Still Miss Someone” and “Big River” were high points, and Costello—a remarkably engaging and insightful talk show host—was very funny in suggesting a second generation of The Highwaymen, the country music superstar group made up of Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and the now deceased Cash and Waylon Jennings. After all, Kristofferson was present along with Cash’s daughter, and Jones, besides her Grammy-winning pop albums, fronts a country band named after Nelson--the Little Willies.

“John and I can arm-wrestle for the Waylon role!” Costello declared, then sparked a friendly banter with Mellencamp regarding critical comments Costello made in the late 1970s regarding the then Johnny Cougar’s stage name—Mellencamp having lived in London briefly during the height of British punk rock and the start of Costello’s career. A contrite Costello then quickly conceded how he’d be the last one to question a fellow rocker’s stage name, since he himself works under a stage name--as did the likes of his Brit contemporaries Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, the Damned’s Captain Sensible and the Clash’s Joe Strummer.

Clearly, Costello was as thrilled to have Mellencamp on the show as Mellencamp, a huge Costello fan who seemed to watch him in awe, was to be there. Noting how Mellencamp had been “abducted” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, Costello said that both he and Mellencamp both started out as rock musicians, yet would be performing together here as acoustic singer-songwriters. He also hailed Mellencamp’s new “Life, Death, Love, And Freedom” album as “one of his very best” and credited producer T Bone Burnett, who has produced Costello recordings as well.

“It’s very rare that you make a musical friend—the record was made in-between jokes!” said Mellencamp of “Henry,” returning conversation to stage names since Burnett was born Joseph Henry Burnett. “I’ve known him longer than both of you and never knew that!” interjected a bemused Kristofferson.

And that’s the way it went. Very loose and a lot of fun, and in the case of Cash, a great relief. She seems to have fully recovered from having brain surgery last year; she looked and sounded great, and a high point of the night was the first performance of a new song she has since written with Costello and Kristofferson, “April Fifth.” The only trouble she had came after Mellencamp sang “Small Town,” prompting her to pause a moment before saying, “I can’t believe I have to follow that song! I really love it.”

The evening ended perfectly with a group-sing on Kristofferson’s immortal “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Big River”—though the program may be sequenced differently when it airs.

Mellencamp, by the way, also sang “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Longest Days.” The series, meanwhile, is set to premiere later this year on Sundance Channel in the U.S.

--jim bessman