Along with The Beatles, Elvis Presley has the widest reach of any 20th-century pop artist. Unlike the Beatles, the reach isn’t very deep. While Beatles albums keep getting rediscovered by new generations, Presley has a handful of hits that remain common knowledge for casual music listeners, and not much else. The problem with Presley’s discography is the dearth of entry points that are accessible and intriguing; the best primers for his work are greatest-hits albums heavy on over-familiar songs, and unwieldy (though frequently remarkable) box sets. Then there’s 1971’s Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), recently reissued as a two-disc set with the similar but inferior Love Letters From Elvis. A record with no hits, and none of the flash or camp that the late-period, jumpsuit-clad Presley is known for, Elvis Country is the closest thing to a concept album in his canon. With its famous cover showing a strangely magnetic (yet also lonely-seeming) 2-year-old Presley, the record is a wistful look back to the singer’s roots, surveying a variety of Nashville sounds—from ragged bluegrass to strings-laden countrypolitan ballads—that foreshadow the highly melancholic, romantically ravaged brooding that consumed Presley in the final years of his life.
Recorded during lengthy but loose sessions in June 1970 that also formed the basis of that year’s essential That’s The Way It Is as well as Love Letters, Elvis Country has an instantly appealing “live” sound that spotlights Presley’s charged chemistry with his ace backing band (which featured legendary session players like guitarist James Burton and pianist David Briggs). Some cuts, like the Bill Monroe hit “Little Cabin On The Hill,” sound like laid-back jams serendipitously caught on tape. Presley favored slower, almost dirge-like material as he got older, but Elvis Country has plenty of kick, with Presley whipping up a mean strut on Lee Hazlewood’s “The Fool” and the Jerry Lee Lewis chestnut, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” his hardest-rocking song of the ’70s.
But the heart of Elvis Country lies with the ballads, all of which are lovelorn, “why’d she leave me?” weepies that Presley sings with the conviction of a man whose own marriage was falling apart. (He separated and divorced wife Priscilla the following year.) The wounded sentiment unifies Elvis Country even as Presley draws from a wide range of material, including the Hank Cochran standard “Make The World Go Away,” the Anne Murray hit “Snowbird,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” a sophisticated depiction of a failed adult relationship by a then-obscure singer-songwriter named Willie Nelson. Rock’s greatest song interpreter, Presley makes it all sound like expressions of his personal, painfully brokenhearted worldview.
Presley recorded 35 songs at those June ’70 sessions, and what didn’t end up on That’s The Way It Is or Elvis Country fell to Love Letters From Elvis. Not surprisingly, it sounds like a bunch of leftovers, and on the Elvis Country reissue it’s essentially a glorified extras disc. But there are some songs that stand out, including a sweaty jam on “Got My Mojo Working/Keep Your Hands Off Of It” and the charming “It’s Ain’t No Big Thing (But It’s Growing).” Elvis Country is good enough to stand on its own, but considering the darkness hovering just over the album’s horizon, every last scrap of inspiration should be savored.