During his lifetime, Elvis Presley released 22 studio albums and 20 movie soundtrack albums. He was one of the greatest recording artists of his era, and his era was one in which the idea of the unified, coherent long-player came into its own. Yet, despite all this, you would need only one hand to count the Elvis albums that are truly essential.
Even if you consider that his great singles were usually not included on albums, something is amiss with this ratio. Of course, that something is the fact Elvis, for a good part of his career, recorded songs that were fed to him, that he did not particularly care about, and that were released in a careless, profit-hungry fashion.
But Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), from 1971, has always been cited as a keeper, and many consider it his best-ever album. Nothing is ever simple with Elvis and his music, and the album bears hints of the kitschy, over-the-top self-parody that would soon consume the King. It is, however, irresistibly poignant and undeniably powerful, due to a number of factors.
Consider has career. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) marked the pinnacle of Presley’s brief artistic renaissance, which began with the 1968 Comeback Special. Elvis had just persuaded producer Felton Jarvis to leave his staff job with RCA and become Elvis’ exclusive personal producer. This was a huge risk on Jarvis’ part, and he had a lot riding on the outcome. While previous post-comeback work had been recorded in Memphis, this time Elvis and Jarvis decamped to Nashville. Elvis had begun performing in Las Vegas, and on Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) you can feel the energy of a professional who is reinvigorated and hungry for an audience. It would be Presley’s last Top 20 album in the United States, until his death sparked sales of Moody Blue in 1977. The slow fade was about to begin. This album is a great reminder that not everything Elvis did during the Vegas years was kitsch.
Consider the songs. Elvis had been recording pap that was the property of music publishers his management and cronies controlled. But during a five-day burst of recording in 1970, Elvis began to indulge his whims, tastes, and influences. These included “country music” in nearly all its iterations. Time-worn classics such as Bob Wills’ swinging “Faded Love”, Earnest Tubb’s weeper “Tomorrow Never Comes”, and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe’s “Little Cabin on the Hill”. Not everything was quite so high-grade, with the lighter-than-air “Snowbird”, a contemporary hit for Anne Murray, the prime example. Not everything was country, either, as evidenced by Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) has been pegged as a concept album. It is not, even though snippets of “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” link the songs together. It is, though, more the vision of the man whose name appears on the cover than nearly anything else he released.
Consider the circumstances. Despite, or maybe because of, his big comeback, Elvis’ personal life was a mess. Pulled, as ever, in different directions by his manager Tom Parker, his Memphis friends (“friends”?), his record company, and tens of others, Presley was stressed and beginning to fray. He was abusing prescription drugs and womanizing, and his marriage was about to fall apart. The tension was released in the studio. You can hear it in the way Elvis’ voice rasps occasionally, in the way the earnestness nearly gives way to rage when you don’t expect it, like halfway through Willie Nelson’s peaceful “Funny How Time Slips Away”. This is the sound of Elvis fighting for his career and, quite possibly, his sanity. “Make the World Go Away”, he pleas. It would go away, indeed, sooner than he could have imagined. But this album is full of vitality.
Consider the performances. Jarvis brought in an almost entirely new band, basically the original, pre-fame Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Lead guitarist James Burton was a key holdover. Most of what you hear on Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) was recorded during a five-day burst that yielded almost three dozen songs. And most of it was recorded live in the studio, often in a few takes, sometimes in one. The playing is raw, and the mix is “dirty”, with bits of chatter and studio noise. This just adds to the energy, the electricity of great musicians backing a great singer for the first time. Drummer Buddy Harman in particular just pounds the crap out of his kit, and bassist Norman Putnam is right there with him. Burton gets his share of mean licks in, too. And Elvis’ voice is truly magnificent. The drugs and stress had not yet destroyed him physically, and he simply whips the songs around the room, into submission, and your ears submit, too. The crux of all this lies in “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, one take that starts out so heavy it sounds like punk, goes tribal for a bit, then, thrillingly, almost veers right off the road.
For all these reasons, in the music and in its context, you could argue Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) is the quintessential Elvis album. It is certainly the most complete representation of what the man and his music were about during the last decade of his life and career. At the very least, it contains some essential performances you’ll want to hear many times over. And the remastering job is top-notch.
There’s something else. This “Legacy Edition” of the album is also a reflection of the shoddy treatment Elvis was often given by Parker and RCA. Three albums were squeezed out of the Nashville sessions. Love Letters From Elvis, the third, was released only five months after Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old). It was a Let It Be-type creation, with Jarvis conducting edits and many overdubs after the fact. And it was full of the very same questionable, cut-rate material its predecessor had avoided. Even the one-take jam, “Got My Mojo Working”, sounds unconvincing. Yet, the folks at Sony Legacy have included the album in its entirety on the second disc, suggesting the two albums are of a piece. Recording dates notwithstanding, this is a farce. The handful of previously issued bonus tracks are little consolation. So, in this handsome package, you have greatness side-by-side with missed opportunity and greed. A microcosm of Elvis’ career, if you will.
Several years ago, a two-disc version of Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) was issued by Follow That Dream, the arm of Sony Legacy devoted to serious Elvis collectors. That release contained many outtakes and alternate and extended takes. These were unadorned by string and vocal overdubs, and were a more interesting, more fitting tribute to Elvis’ legacy than a rehash of Love Letters. It ain’t cheap, and it represents the kind of sound marketing decision Presley rarely made. But it’s the one to seek out.