It’s around 11 o’clock in Nashville on the evening of Saturday, October 2nd, 1954; a callow 19-year-old from Tupelo, Mississippi has just played at the Grand Ole Opry for the first – and last – time. Deflated and demoralised by the country faithful’s flat response to his performance, he walks down the block to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, where he’s scheduled to play the famous Midnight Jamboree that same night.
On meeting Tubb for the first time, he pours out his heart to the older man about how he loves country music but keeps being told that if he wants to make money, he has to sing the other kind - the weird kind - of music that he’s essentially just invented.
Tubb listens attentively and then asks the singer if he has, in fact, got any money.
“No sir”, comes the response.
“Well, Elvis, you just go ahead and do what they tell you. Make your money. Then you can do what you want to do”.
Almost 20 years later, on January 14th, 1973, Elvis is on stage in Hawaii in front of a vast global television audience numbering in the hundreds of millions. He grins, wipes the sweat from his face and says, “I’d like to sing a (Hank Williams) song that’s probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard. It goes like this…”
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
The story of Elvis Presley is, of course, one of the greatest in popular culture history, if not the greatest. We never tire of hearing it over and over again, from this angle or that. One of its strengths is its openness; its ability to accommodate almost anything you care to hang on it. Long ago it became codified as myth and, as with all myths, you can make of it what you will. My Elvis story is different from your Elvis story, which is different from Sam Phillips’ Elvis story and even – in fact especially – from Elvis’ interior version of his own life.
They mean different things and they move in different ways, yet somehow, they’re all true - even when they’re not. Examining the influence of country music on Elvis is something we can easily explore, so step inside why don’t you?
If you’re so minded, you can easily find the picture of an 11 or 12-year-old Elvis dressed as a cowboy, posing in front of a backdrop at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, held annually in his hometown of Tupelo. His dark hooded eyes peer out from an expressionless face, framed by a black hat and a Western scarf, one hand gripping the prop revolver holstered on the elaborate gun belt he wears across a pair of chaps.
What’s he thinking about? Does this shy, secretive boy see himself as a cowboy in the mould of his movie star heroes, or is he, even at this point, daring to dream that music might be his future?
It’s impossible to tell, but what’s certainly true is that it was at this same fair in 1945 that Elvis, then just 10-years-old, first sang in front of an audience of strangers, performing country star Red Foley’s ‘Old Shep’ in the talent contest. He came 5th, encouraged to enter by his teacher after he had sung the same song at school assembly a few weeks earlier. Four months later Elvis got his first guitar for his 11th birthday. The stage was set.
Elvis had grown up with country music. His whole family would routinely gather around the radio on Saturday nights to listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and Tupelo was where he made his first tentative steps toward it as a career. His friend James Ausborn had an older brother who performed under the name of Mississippi Slim, and Slim – when he wasn’t touring with Tex Ritter or appearing on the Opry himself – was the hillbilly star of the local radio station WELO. Elvis persuaded James to make the introductions, and most weekends the two boys would go to watch Slim’s show being broadcast. If he was lucky, Slim would teach Elvis a few chords on the guitar or let him sing a little.
But it would go no further - on November 6th, 1948, the Presleys packed up and left for Memphis.
It’s easy to believe, then, that for Elvis, country music came to represent home. Compared to Tupelo, Memphis was a very different proposition - a bustling, prosperous city, exhilarating and intimidating at the same time and bursting at the seams with the sounds of very different music. Tupelo was a slower, safer, tighter community, and while it was the mixture of the two that made Elvis the artist he became, it was always the gospel and country music of Mississippi that he retreated to in times of trouble or uncertainty.
It was also country music that he saw as his way to fulfilling his dreams. Let’s not forget that in the exact moment before Elvis popularised rock’n’roll, he was singing a country song (Leon Payne’s ‘I Love You Because’), and that the song that he turned to after the seismic shift of ‘That’s All Right’ was Bill Monroe’s classic ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, albeit taken at a breakneck speed.
That move from a sentimental country ballad to hopped-up country blues sprang from Elvis’ life at the time- upwardly mobile and finding freedom in music that he’d never experienced before.
The old life was the fatalistic Saturday night / Sunday morning dichotomy embedded in the country music of the time: you could have a good time, but you would have to pay for it. Elvis at his best said that maybe you didn’t have to do that anymore – as Greil Marcus points out in his masterful book Mystery Train, he took the guilt out of it.
And with that, the Hillbilly Cat was up and running at the world.
Elvis, Scotty (Moore) and Bill (Black) made their live debut in July 1954 supporting Slim Whitman at Memphis’ prestigious Overton Park Shell. Initially, it was ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ that made waves at radio, and was also the song that Elvis played at his ill-fated Opry show in October. As well as Ernest Tubb, Presley met Bill Monroe that night and stammered out an apology to another of his idols for ruining his song. Far from being displeased with what many in the country field felt was akin to sacrilege, Monroe revealed that he had in fact just cut a new version of the song himself, one based on Elvis’ own arrangement.
Monroe’s approval wasn’t enough to save Elvis’ Opry career, and another invitation to appear on the show was never forthcoming. Instead, he became a regular on the rival Louisiana Hayride, the Opry’s livelier younger cousin which had already made stars of Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Webb Pierce.
The Hayride brought Elvis into contact with the infamous Colonel Tom Parker for the first time, and soon he was touring with Parker’s client Hank Snow and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, including a date in Texas where a young Buddy Holly appeared at the very bottom of the bill. By the middle of 1955, Elvis could be seen on bills with Webb Pierce, Wanda Jackson, Johnny Cash and Charlie Feathers; the latter co-writing ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’ which became Elvis’ first no.1 in August - the first of nine Presley singles to top the country charts and the last to be released on Sun Records from Memphis.
Colonel Parker had by now become the singer’s manager and promptly extracted him from Sun in favour of a contract with national label RCA, and so it was that on January 10th, 1956, Elvis set foot in a Nashville recording studio for the first time. The RCA studios were on McGavrock Street at the time, a little way away from Music Row itself, and waiting for Elvis were - among others - Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer, both scheduled to play on his major-label debut. The first song they cut was a version of Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’; Atkins was so excited that he called his wife and told her to get down to the studio right away to watch history being made.
It was the start of a process that fundamentally changed the nature of country music. Next to be recorded was ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the single that made Elvis a star not just in the wider USA, but across the world. Up to this point, Elvis had only operated across country radio stations and venues but was starting to create inroads for a genre - still widely regarded as old fashioned - to attract younger audiences; bringing artists like Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Wanda Jackson and dozens of others in his wake.
The release of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ changed all that. Instead of being a modernising force for country music, Elvis became the founding titan of rock’n’roll, taking the vast majority of that young audience out of country entirely. The effect on Nashville was profound. Chasing the money as always, more and more US radio stations switched to the new music and the established stars started to feel the pinch. Ernest Tubb considered giving it all up and joining his brother in the insurance business, and by 1957, the often barely a-quarter-full Grand Ole Opry was dropped by NBC. In 1958 the Country Music Association – the CMA – was formed, in part an attempt to address this ruinous influence of rock’n’roll on country music.
Something had to change in Music City, and it turned out that Chet Atkins was the man to do it. Working with another RCA artist - the mellow voiced Jim Reeves - Atkins came up with a smoothed-out country sound, more urban than rural, largely stripped of steel guitar and fiddle and laden with strings and backing vocals. As so, the Nashville Sound was born, and it became the dominant style well into the 70s, taking country music out of the genre ghetto and generating a mainstream cultural presence across the US and beyond. When once asked to define it, Atkins simply smiled and rattled the loose change in his pockets.
And what of Elvis? Did the country boy ever come home again? Well, yes and no. In the late 1950s, RCA built a new studio complex in Nashville where Elvis recorded more songs than anywhere else, well over 200 in total. After starring in a string of increasingly terrible films in the 1960s - and a serious slump in his popularity - Elvis retreated back to country music for inspiration, and the two Jerry Reed songs he recorded in 1967 and 1968, ‘Guitar Man’ and ‘US Male’, seemed to kickstart something in him once more.
The electrifying 68 Comeback Special followed; a string of tremendous country soul songs like ‘Polk Salad Annie’, ‘Long Black Limousine’and ‘True Love Travels On A Gravel Road’ trailing in its wake. In 1970, Elvis famously recorded 30 songs in an epic day and night session in RCA Studio B with the cream of the Nashville session players. That marathon – reissued to tremendous effect last year as the 4CD box From Elvis In Nashville - yielded three entire albums and accompanying singles and was Elvis’ last sustained tilt at greatness.
There were great moments to come – American Trilogy, Burning Love, some of the Vegas shows and the aforementioned devastating assault on Hank Williams during Aloha From Hawaii – but that’s what they were – moments. That rather sums up Elvis and country music. He was from it, rather than of it, cutting country songs with country musicians but never actually making a real country record, not even the one they called Elvis Country.
Elvis died on August 16th, 1977, at his home in Memphis. The last song he ever performed - sung for his own amusement from behind the piano in his squash court complex - was Willie Nelson’s arrangement of ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’, originally a hit for “The King of Country Music” Roy Acuff in 1947.
Country music had shaped him and he changed it; it was his home but he left. As he told the first person who ever asked him who he sounded like: “I don’t sound like nobody”.
Photography courtesy of Alamy Stock Collection.