Showing his deep admiration for Ryan Adams, Sir Elton John addressed the young rock and roller as “fabulous one” during a taping Tuesday night for “CMT Crossroads.” In Studio A at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, John told an invited audience how Adams’ 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker, prompted him to reassess his own approach to recording.
“If I hadn’t heard Heartbreaker, I’d probably be lost in overproduction somewhere,” John said during a question-and-answer segment of the show, which explores the common country music roots of artists from diverse backgrounds. “I was completely and utterly floored by the simplicity and beauty of the songs.” On his most recent release, Songs From the West Coast, John returned to the basic band sound of early albums such as Honky Chateau and Tumbleweed Connection.
Though separated by a generation, John, 55, and Adams, 27, appeared to discover acres of common ground during their two-hour taping. Adams, a North Carolina native, was a member of the alt-country band Whiskeytown before setting out on a solo career. John first hit the American pop charts in 1970, and he has since become one of the most important figures in pop music history. An edited, one-hour version of the concert, with additional interview and behind-the-scenes footage, is scheduled to debut May 26 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.
In the “Crossroads” format, the two artists collaborated on all performances. John kicked off the night, taking the lead on Adams’ “Firecracker,” while Adams sang harmony and handled the bridge. Then Adams strapped on an acoustic guitar and stepped to the mic for “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” from John’s Honky Chateau, an album he described later in the show as a “vibe-y record.”
And it went that way throughout the night. Before he performed “La Cienega Just Smiled,” John called it “my favorite song from [Adams’ newest CD] Gold, and that’s saying a lot.” Generous and professional, he encouraged Adams at every turn, and Adams, finishing a slightly bent reading of John’s “Daniel,” exclaimed, “Hell of a song! Hell of a guy!”
John cited Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” as the song from Heartbreaker that “inspired me to go back to basics and do the album I did last year.” And Adams, responding to John’s assertion that he only writes music and leaves the wordsmithing to Bernie Taupin, speculated that “one day there’s gonna be this notebook found with all your kickass lyrics in it.”
Responding to audience questions, Adams named Loretta Lynn his all-time favorite country singer, followed closely by Tammy Wynette. John rattled off a list that included George Strait, Patsy Cline, Vince Gill, Jim Reeves, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. He called country music “the most original white music to come out of America.”
Soon after, John and Adams tried Reeves’ 1960 hit, “He’ll Have to Go,” but a problem with a teleprompter sabotaged the performance. While staffers worked on a fix, John, Adams and Adams’ backing band (including steel guitarist Bucky Baxter) hauled out songs by Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone”), Gram Parsons (“Ooh Las Vegas” and “Sin City”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”) and Hank Williams (“Lovesick Blues”), further underlining their common grounding in country music. On most songs, John vamped along with the band, but on the Lewis number he pounded furiously on his Yamaha grand and took the lead vocal.
As if energized by their casual but passionate song swap, John and Adams finished with spirited readings of two John tunes – “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man.” Baxter’s steel added great color to the former. The latter was rearranged to emphasize the loose but edgy electric sound of Adams’ band. The audience, sensing it had been let in on a rare and special collaboration, responded with great enthusiasm – as it did throughout the night.