The new CD Elvis: Great Country Songs (RCA) is both a collection of fascinating songs and an insightful history primer. Elvis almost single-handedly killed commercial country music in the 1950s, yet he was also a part of its later resurgence.
Presley's career was partly sparked by his 1954 cover version of Bluegrass inventor Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Elvis later -- in his one and only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry -- apologized to Monroe for supercharging his song and speeding it up. Monroe was very gracious to Presley -- unlike Opry boss Jim Denny who advised Presley to go back to driving a truck -- and later speeded up the song himself. Presley was also launched by key appearances on the enormously popular and influential country radio barn dances -- the Big D Jamboree in Dallas and the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. And he obviously recorded enough country songs and was such a country influence that he was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He charted more than 80 singles on the Billboard country chart and racked up 10 No. 1 country hits.
But when Elvis and rock 'n' roll took the U.S. by storm in the mid- and late-1950s, country music almost vanished on radio. Country stations throughout the South, especially, flipped to rock formats and country crept toward irrelevance and extinction as a radio format. Today's Country Music Association (CMA) was formed as a self-defense against rock 'n' roll. In 1958, the reeling Country Music Disc Jockey Association (which formed in 1954) reorganized itself as the CMA as a chamber of commerce for country music, formed by a coalition of country music song publishers and radio stations struggling to fight back. The number of fulltime country radio stations in the U.S. dropped to 81 in 1961 (today it's more than 2,000) before a recovery began.
Elvis' signing by RCA Records (away from Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis in 1955) also led directly to RCA opening an office and then a recording studio in Nashville, which fostered the establishment of Music Row and the growth of Nashville as a music center.
Although much of his work was tinged with country overtones and recorded with country sidemen and backing vocalists, Elvis' first overt country album didn't come until 1971. Titled Elvis Country ("I'm 10,000 Years Old" , it included such country standards as Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away," Bob Wills' "Faded Love," Eddy Arnold's "I Really Don't Want to Know," Jack Greene's "There Goes My Everything," Flatt & Scruggs' "Little Cabin on the Hill" and Anne Murray's "Snowbird." Not to mention the song that inspired the album subtitle: "I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago."
The new collection opens with Presley's first No. 1 country hit, 1955's "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," jumps into the original echo-chambered "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and goes on to include 22 other notable Presley country takes. There are previously unreleased versions of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," the Pointer Sisters' "Fairytale," "Just Call Me Lonesome," "There Goes My Everything" and "Green, Green Grass of Home."
If you've never heard Presley's cover of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," recorded by Elvis in 1958 with the Jordanaires, you owe it to yourself to savor Elvis making that song very much his own.
This is missing a few essential things I would like to see included, most notably his take of the George Jones hit "She Thinks I Still Care" (which is included on the RCA box set Elvis: Today, Tomorrow & Forever) and the great "There's a Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me Back In)" from the 1975 album Promised Land.
His last studio recording -- included here -- was the classic Jim Reeves hit "He'll Have to Go," cut on a mobile recording unit in the Jungle Room at Graceland Oct. 30, 1976, less than a year before Elvis' death. The big Elvis voice was still there. The powerful voice that always carried a subcurrent of such urgency that it demanded that you listen.
The package also reprints a 1955 RCA in-house promotional memo, which begins, "In Elvis Presley, we've acquired the most dynamic and sought-after new artist in country music today, one who's topped the 'most promising' category in every trade and consumer poll held during 1955!"