Music » Music Features

"Memphis" Country

Taking stock of three recent two-disc reissues from Elvis Presley, the Louvin Brothers, and Johnny Cash



The latest iteration of Elvis Presley reissues hits the diminishing-returns phase with a repackaged Elvis Country, a two-disc set released January 3rd. This reissue of the 1971 album follows a formula that proved useful on a couple of recent packages — combining a notable Presley studio album with a less well-known album released around the same time, with copious liner notes, extra art, and bonus tracks.

This format worked well on a 2009 reissue that paired 1969's From Elvis in Memphis with the related 1970 Back in Memphis, preserving most of Presley's great late-'60s Memphis recordings — including key singles as bonus cuts — in a package that ably replaced the out-of-print collection The Memphis Record while besting the more recent, too completist Suspicious Minds.

Slightly less useful but still welcome was the 2011 reissue of Presley's terrific, underrated 1960 pop juggernaut Elvis Is Back!, backed with that year's considerably less compelling but still worthwhile Something for Everybody.

From Elvis in Memphis and Elvis Is Back! are arguably Presley's two best studio albums — or, at least, the two best since his eponymous 1956 RCA debut. They belong on the short list of the Elvis music that matters most. Elvis Country, by contrast, is primarily the kind of overdone, under-committed glop that makes most of his catalog so disappointingly forgettable — and yet even it towers over Love Letter From Elvis, the forgettable, otherwise unconnected 1971 album that's tacked on to the package.

The most interesting thing about Elvis Country is its packaging: the lightly colored photograph of a ragamuffin, urchin Elvis, taken from the accompanying black and white photo of him with his stern, shell-shocked-looking young parents; the title prelude, "I'm 10,000 Years Old." But the music behind the imagery isn't so grave.

Presley is only a couple of years removed from the dual triumphs of the "'68 Comeback" television special and his great American Studio recordings in Memphis but already sounds like he's going through the motions — even though the liner notes claim the album maintained the momentum of those breakthroughs and his subsequent Vegas forays.

Musically, this alleged departure isn't very different from the general thrust of Presley's music during these early Vegas years — not really country as much as over-orchestrated swamp rock. The most high-profile stuff here — an album-opening take on Anne Murray's then-recent hit "Snowbird," an overbearing version of Ernest Tubb's "Tomorrow Never Comes" (which had been repopularized at the time by Glen Campbell and B.J. Thomas), a Vegas-style run-through of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" — is the least successful. And the entire album is plagued by a distracting reiteration of a "theme" song — the gospel-rocker "I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago," included in full as a bonus track — in the segues from track to track.

Still an extremely talented singer, Presley finds better footing on several cuts: a light version of Bill Monroe's "Little Cabin on the Hill," a pleading version of Bob Wills' "Faded Love," the gospel-oriented "I Really Don't Want To Know," a bluegrass-style vocal take on the bonus "studio jam" of Flatt & Scruggs' "A Hundred Years From Now." But even on these songs, Presley's performance is burdened with too many layers of instrumentation beneath it. And while Presley's solid take on Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" is a highlight here, it was bested by another Memphian a couple of years later, when Al Green did the definitive version on his 1973 masterpiece Call Me.

Taking a similar formula and getting it right is Satan Is Real, a lovingly packaged, two-disc reissue of music from the great country harmony act the Louvin Brothers, released by Seattle-based indie Light in the Attic, a reissue label with a serious Memphis jones, having released one collection of Stax-connected obscurities — Charles "Packy" Axton's Late Late Party 1965-1967 — and soon to release another — Wendy Rene's After Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax-Volt Singles and Rarities 1964-1965, which is set for release next month.

The Louvins — Ira and Charlie, the former died young in a 1965 car crash, the latter passing of cancer roughly a year ago — lived and performed in Memphis in the late '40s and early '50s, just before the music on this set was recorded. The pair's close harmony vocals would influence later acts such as the Everly Brothers, the Byrds, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Satan Is Real, with its classic kitschy cover of the brothers singing in front of a towering cutout devil and amid burning rocks, is probably their most well-known studio album. It's a tight collection of gospel-driven songs about sin and redemption whose serious fundamentalist bent — "Hell is a real place, a place of everlasting punishment," Ira asserts on the album-opening title track — does not follow the comical bent of the cover art. But it isn't all hellfire and brimstone, as illustrated by the duo's lovely, oft-covered original "The Christian Life" and their cover of the Carter Family's merciful, next-life vision "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea."

Here, Satan Is Real is paired with Handpicked Songs 1955-1962, a de facto "best of" collection of Louvin songs each chosen, and most discussed in the liner notes, by a contemporary musician — a mix of country/roots vets (Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris) and younger indie acts (M. Ward, Beck, Zooey Deschanel). Handpicked Songs offers a fuller testament to the range of their music, from "The Great Atomic Power," a still-gospel tune whose vision of hellfire and brimstone is entirely man-made, to the nostalgic "Alabama" to the lovelorn "Low and Lonely."

While Presley was — arguably at this point? — the more momentous artist, Sun successor Johnny Cash has a deeper catalog, which is only partly a product of having lived a much longer life. Released in October, the two-disc Live Around the World: Bootleg Vol. III is more compelling than last year's demo-oriented From Memphis to Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. II. (This series got started with 2006's Personal File Bootleg Vol. I.)

There's no real Memphis material here, save three opening Sun-era cuts from a live performance in Dallas, but at 53 songs and well over two hours, it's a big collection full of interesting material. In smart, brief liner notes, critic Dave Marsh called this "one of [Cash's] triumphant albums, placing him in history, both American and musical."

Spanning nearly 25 years, Live Around the World follows Cash from the "Big 'D' Jamboree" in 1956 Dallas to such disparate places as the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, an airport NCO club in 1969 Vietnam, and Nixon's White House circa 1970. He plays for inmates at a Swedish prison in 1972 and for record company executives in Nashville a year later.

As is the tendency with most live albums, the recording and performance quality varies and the intimacy often sometimes feel once-removed, but the juxtaposition of settings deepens the impact.

At Newport, Cash is introduced by Pete Seeger, one folk music giant welcoming what would become a bigger one, and sings Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" at Dylan's request before ending with his antiracism "Ballad of Ira Hayes" and cover of the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side."

In Vietnam, singing for American soldiers, he's accompanied by wife June and a rowdier crowd. They juice the tempo on such classics as "Big River" and the duet "Jackson" and get lusty shouts of approval from their audience, in contrast to the more polite reception at Newport and later at the White House. Cash recounted this experience in his stunning "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues."

At the White House, accompanied by his father, whom he mentions from the stage, Cash is introduced by Nixon, a couple of years from reelection and a couple more from impeachment. Cash's compelling set focuses on songs about growing up in the rural South ("Five Feet High and Rising," "Pickin' Time," "Daddy Sang Bass") and religious songs ("Jesus Was a Carpenter," "He Turned the Water Into Wine"), but he adds in the nervy "What Is Truth."

Ultimately, Live Around the World: Bootleg Vol. III is more a historical document than a collection you'll listen to with much frequency. It adds new shades to the portrait of Cash as cultural figure, but this isn't what you're going to reach for most of the time when you want to hear some Johnny Cash.

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