41 – ELVIS COUNTRY
Released in the USA 2nd January 1971
The History Of the Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon was essential reading for those Englishmen of my generation that had intellectual ambition. The full work demanded six volumes. Most settled for the 795 pages in the abridged Penguin version. According to Gibbon, decline begins not in failure but at the moment of final triumph. There is always a victory that heralds the fall. Edward Gibbon died in 1794. This meant that he missed Elvis but if Gibbon had been around he would have said I told you so.
1971 began for Elvis with the release of the Elvis Country album. The proposed title was I’m 10,000 Years Old. This referred to the song that was used to link the twelve tracks of the album. The Colonel or someone at RCA thought this was all too fancy and converted the proposed title into a strap line for the plainer and more obvious Elvis Country. On this occasion Elvis was involved in the design of the cover. Because of the nature of the material, Elvis suggested using a photograph of him as a three year old. In the photograph Elvis poses with depression afflicted parents. Of all his albums Elvis Country has the most imaginative packaging. The dead hand of the Colonel and RCA, though, could not be resisted. The back cover had a hokey design that resembled one of the previous soundtrack albums. A photo of Elvis in his white suit in Vegas was surrounded by Walt Disney style logs.
In the UK the Elvis Country album and the release of the documentary That’s The Way It Is arrived in the spring of 1971. Movie critics were a little sniffy about the film but their music alternatives welcomed both the album and the movie. In the movie, Elvis was how we remembered him, a conqueror. Peter Guralnick in Rolling Stone claimed that Elvis Country contained some of the finest music from Elvis since his early days at Sun Records. The period of decline in the career of Elvis stretches from the years 1971 to 1977. In this period Elvis was a reduced man obliged to utilise a talent that had passed its peak. The deterioration in Elvis is often attributed to the failure of the marriage between Priscilla and her husband. The words of Gibbon, though, have echoes. Priscilla and Elvis divorced in 1973. Elvis went into decline before that.
In June 1970, Elvis had completed a mammoth recording session in Nashville. Over five days he had recorded thirty six songs. Listen to the sessions in full and Elvis sounds like a man enjoying working. Not everything that was recorded in those five days was great but there was enough in there to fill two superior albums. In the two years since his comeback in late 1968 the singer had produced enough music for four essential studio albums and two live albums that, if not spectacular, were impressive. Three of the studio albums are now regarded as classics, and the other three albums could have been if the material had been handled by a more adroit record company.
Despite having recorded 36 tracks the previous June there was a need for two more tracks for the album to be complete. These were scheduled for a one day recording session in November 1970. Elvis arrived a day late and when he did appear he was short tempered and impatient, insisting that he wanted to return early to Memphis. Elvis liked to record through the night and until dawn. It gave him an excuse to put his insomnia on hold. This truncated session ended not long after midnight. For once Priscilla was in attendance. Reports have suggested that in conversations with the other musicians she hinted that the change in the behaviour of Elvis was a consequence of increased usage of pills, something that had happened because Elvis was performing on stage frequently. Before each of his performances in the 1970s he liked to take amphetamines. After the performance he would take a depressant to help him rest.
The two songs that were taken from the half day session in November and included in the album are not sub-standard. The choice of Snowbird was meant to confirm the wide breadth of country music. Elvis also liked the voice of singer Anne Murray. It is the least interesting track on the album but not unpleasant. His version of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On has been thought an odd choice for a country album. The original version was by rhythm and blues singer Big Maybelle. Quincy Jones had led the studio band. The song, though, had been written by two country musicians, one of whom played for Webb Pierce. Elvis attacks the song and whether hungover or not he, possibly in anger, confirms his status as an eminent rock and roller.
Between the November recording session and the release of the album there had been more strange antics from Elvis. On the 17th of November Elvis finished a short tour across the USA. This time he performed in large arenas. Apart from picking up an award he had until the 26th of January to rest and recover. Most of us would have settled in and prepared for a leisurely Christmas. Elvis, though, decided he had to have a particular police badge for his collection. For this he needed permission from the USA President. To achieve this aim Elvis wrote a letter that not only confirmed his love of his country but his willingness to help as an undercover agent in combating the drug problem. Not a man noted for his patience, Elvis, rather than wait for a reply, visited the President the next day. This was done five days before Christmas Day. Loyal friend Jerry Schilling and the resident liberal in the Memphis Mafia that surrounded Elvis has cautioned those who assume that the behaviour of Elvis confirms him as an out of touch reactionary. ‘Elvis would have said anything to get that police badge,’ said Schilling.
No doubt there is some truth in this but it is also obvious that Elvis was becoming hostile to liberals and the counterculture. Drug fuelled paranoia would have played its part. If Elvis had reclaimed a career, the rock and roll summit was now beyond him. And the damning review in Rolling Stone of the That’s The Way It Is album must have left bruises. The young Elvis had been a southern liberal, strong on civil rights but a patriot albeit with some bohemian instincts. For him both the politics and music of the modern generation was a step too far. Even those words, though, have to be qualified. Elvis liked the songs of Dylan and still had sympathy for African Americans and the underdog. His faith, though, in American exceptionalism made him complicated and contradictory, and in his worst moments he was like most of us, dumb and embarrassing. I doubt, though, that I will ever forgive him for that letter to Richard Nixon. A rock and roll hero has responsibilities and the day that Elvis wrote to Nixon he forgot them.
Elvis Country is the last great Elvis studio album that was released before his death. The fourteen that followed were all disappointments. All have moments but Elvis failed in what is the most important requirement for a rock and roll performer. Apart from a couple of live albums none of his subsequent albums deserve to be described as adequate commercial products. Every time I bought one of the later studio efforts I felt cheated. The triumph of Elvis Country heralded the fall and decline. Prior to the release of Elvis Country and my own move down south my own antics had required me to sell my record collection, both albums and singles. I had faith, not a lot but some. If I could settle and build an alternative life, I could replace a record collection. Elvis Country was the first record in the new collection. So, you have to start somewhere.
In the years I had moved around the UK I had developed a taste for country music. When living away from home nothing quite consoles a young man like a doom laden country song. I also liked how country music recognised the casualties. For all the utopian idealism that fuelled the rock of the late 1960s it was country music that admitted there was something that could be called the lonely part of town. Not that a taste for country music is needed to appreciate Elvis Country. Elvis takes the ballads into soul and blues territory and transforms the rest into rock and roll and rockabilly. The President of the British Country Music Association condemned the album as having nothing to do with country music.
Peter Guralnick had said that if From Elvis In Memphis had just consisted of its weaker elements it would have been fine. The same can be said of Elvis Country. Elvis throughout the album draws together the worlds of country and blues. The ex-Muscle Shoals musicians also add rhythm and blues patterns which was probably why the British Country Music Association took exception to the record. Even the weepie Make The World Go Away has gospel intensity. The Shirl Milete song It’s My BabyYou Rock It is formulaic and There Goes My Everything when performed by others sounds trite. Elvis gives the Milete song the necessary contempt and bite. On There Goes My Everything there is a hint of Ray Charles. Sentimentality becomes heartfelt realism, and the burden of existence is acknowledged. The highlights, though, are on another level. I Really Don’t Want To Know is bluesy and, thanks to an ambitious vocal, loaded with feeling. Funny How Time Slips Away is almost as good, and space is given to the band. It is a world away from the Nashville pop that Elvis had felt obliged to record in the mid-1960s. The biggest surprise is the version of the light 1940s Western Swing tune Faded Love. Elvis and the band transform it into heavy rock. In a similar way he lifts the tempo on I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water. No time to brood on misfortune it becomes exhilarating rebellion and full blooded rockabilly. The album so impressed the weekly Disc and Music Echo that it inspired a full page cartoon of Elvis. In it Elvis is an insouciant and content conqueror. Like more than one Roman general, the people at Disc and Music Echo failed to realise that there are always limitations to what can be conquered. These cause frustration and disappointment in the conqueror. Instead of relishing the challenge of unconquered lands conqueror Elvis, like those before him, became preoccupied with court intrigue and spectacle. All this happened later.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.