While Elvis Presley’s musical output was defined more by rock & roll in the Fifties and Sixties, and, later, by easy listening ballads and orchestral anthems, the vocalist maintained a strong affinity for country music throughout his career. The Seventies especially found Presley diving wholeheartedly into country recordings: his final Number One single would be on the country charts, with 1977’s “Moody Blue.” Today, on the 40th anniversary of his death at Graceland in Memphis, we look at the seemingly immortal vocalist’s best country moments.
The B-side to Presley’s first single for Sun Records, “It’s All Right,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” sees the once and future king of rock & roll at ground zero. At this early juncture in the summer of 1954, rock & roll looks a lot like country music. Only a few months past his 19th birthday, this is Presley at his unencumbered best, playing fast and loose with style and convention as he shakes, rattles and rolls his way through this Bill Monroe classic, sped up from its original 3/4 waltz time. Thanks to Scotty Moore and Bill Black’s hillbilly backbeat, Presley hurtles on into the future at amphetamine-fueled speed, his cooing voice at turns growling and howling at the moon. Most importantly, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was a breakthrough, proof to Presley and Sun owner Sam Phillips that lightning could strike more than once. J.G.
In 1976, Presley brought a mobile recording studio into Graceland and summoned his band to the Jungle Room to cut what would be his final sessions. At his most comfortable in his own surroundings – gaudy though they may have been – Presley let loose, recording a number of country-leaning songs, including the last Number One single of his life, “Moody Blue,” which topped the country charts in February of 1977. But the vocalist also chose to interpret the hits of other country stars: Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go,” Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care.” Presley’s version of “She Thinks I Still Care,” a B-side to “Moody Blue,” is particularly heart-wrenching, especially when he sings the line “Just because I’m not the happy guy I used to be” – a real-life glimpse into the life of an increasingly isolated man. J.H.
“I Forgot to Remember to Forget” was the most traditionally country sounding record that Presley cut while he was still with Sun, and it duly became his first single to reach Number One on the country charts. But while it may have been country in form, the song, written by Stan Kesler and Charlie Feathers, was all Elvis in style. Loping along with Moore’s guitar wailing like a pedal steel, Presley colors in shades of expression with his bluesy croon, shuddering and modulating through his elastic vocal range. Above all, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” is dripping with attitude, an apology letter that turns into a kiss-off, all thanks to Presley’s delivery. Not that he needed to dwell on the past: By the time the song reached the top of the charts in early 1956, “The Memphis Flash” had signed with RCA and the world was at his fingertips. J.G.
“I’d like to sing a song that is probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard,” said Presley onstage at his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii TV special, introducing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” In Presley’s hands, the Hank Williams cornerstone of country music becomes just that, the most tortured of laments, as the King slows down the tempo of the song and lingers over each painful word. He never released an official studio version – an outtake does appear on the 2006 import Made in Memphis – leaving the just barely two-minute Aloha performance as the recording of note. Still, it remains an essential component of Presley’s country catalog. J.H.
Emerging from his Hollywood stupor of the Sixties, Presley’s 1968 TV Christmas special gave the rock & roll relic a new lease on life. Still only 33, it was the first time in nearly a decade that the King had been his raw, unfettered self in front of a live audience, and it spurred him to a rare act of rebellion. Breaking free of the Colonel’s grip, he headed home to Memphis that winter to record his greatest LP, From Elvis in Memphis, with Chips Moman. Mostly an album of soul and rock, Presley included a swinging version of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” which Glen Campbell had taken to Number One two years prior. Funky and fleshed out by strings and backup singers, the ingredients of “Gentle on My Mind” would soon become a schmaltzy caricature, but here they see Presley at his swaggering, swashbuckling best, a superstar ready to take on the world. J.G.
Presley was in an increasingly dark place by the time he recorded “You Asked Me To” in December 1973. He’d overdosed twice, spent three days in a coma, and had a further hospital visit that year, all while undergoing the most rigorous concert schedule of his life. Two months before he cut the song, originally released earlier that year on Waylon Jennings’ groundbreaking Honky Tonk Heroes, his divorce with Priscilla had been finalized. Yet Presley mustered a performance that crackled with emotion, particularly through the key change of the final, funky, wah-soaked verse. It ultimately became the closing track on the Promised Land LP, released on his 40th birthday. “From what I hear, [Presley] would do songs over and over and over,” Billy Joe Shaver, who co-wrote “You Asked Me To” with Jennings, told Rolling Stone Country. “Anyone who cares that much about it has got to be a good person.” J.G.
One of Presley’s most lush singles, “Kentucky Rain” features contributions from two future country stars: Eddie Rabbitt co-wrote the song, with Dick Heard, and Ronnie Milsap tickled the ivories. According to Milsap, Presley had a very distinct idea of how he wanted to hear the piano. “More thunder on the piano, Milsap!” Milsap recalled Presley telling him in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone Country. “I got to learn what hanging out with Elvis was all about.” Presley’s instincts proved spot-on: the final studio version cascades with sound, awash in Milsap’s piano and the singer’s impassioned reading of the lyrics, hoping against hope that he’ll find the lover who up and left him. J.H.
Written by Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” had become an instant country standard when Sammi Smith covered it in 1970. That made it prime fodder for Presley to record it the following spring for Elvis Now, a mishmash of hits from other artists and the fourth LP he’d recorded in less than a year. At once slapdash and heartfelt, he leans fully into his Seventies crooner mode on “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” but the performance is by no means phoned in. In the midst of his deteriorating marriage to Priscilla, Presley’s singing carries a smoldering melancholy beneath its woozy surface as he stretches the song out to a five-minute dirge. He and his wife would officially separate three days after Elvis Now‘s release, on February 23rd, 1972. J.G.
A favorite song of Presley’s – according to lore, he was wild about Tom Jones’ version – it was inevitable that the King would one day record his own rendition of “Green, Green Grass of Home.” While it was Porter Wagoner who first made the Curly Putnam composition famous, Presley’s take is more akin to Jones’, favoring bombast over bare-boned country. Cut in Hollywood, it’s a soaring performance, with Presley imbuing the lyrics about a doomed, daydreaming prisoner with an extra dose of the bittersweet, no doubt fully aware that his own home was nearly 2,000 miles away. J.H.
Presley decamped for Nashville to record what would become the album Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) in the summer of 1970, setting up shop in RCA Studio B on Music Row – it still stands today, as a tourist destination. There, he interpreted songs like Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Bob Wills’ “Faded Love” and this Hank Cochran gem. A signature of Ray Price, who released the song in 1963, “Make the World Go Away” becomes a robust cry for Presley, one of many songs he’d cut in the Seventies that reflected his own struggle with the increasing confines of fame. J.H.