Country Side of Elvis [2001] [2 CD]

by: Elvis Presley

This classy, 51-track reissue featuring Elvis' country-styled tunes through his entire career starts promisingly enough with the early Sun sides from 1954, including his version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." But like the artist himself, it dissipates disappointingly as the years progress. Elvis' almost universal appeal was grounded in how effectively he mixed blues, gospel, and classic vocal pop along with his country & western influences to produce, well, rock & roll, along with his own unique hybrid of styles. Hence his country recordings even as early as 1956's "Old Shep" and 1958's version of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" are often marred by sappy backing singers and a commercial slickness that was a harbinger of his Vegas years. Additionally, much of these selections are only vaguely country-sounding, at least in Elvis' hands. "There's Always Me" from 1961 is a pop ballad that is about as far from Hank Williams as Hank Williams, Jr.'s rowdy redneck rock. Far better is Presley's version of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On," which starts out with stark accompaniment but adds horns and backing singers as the tune progresses. The best songs here, like the powerful "Kentucky Rain," add drama and pomp to basic country themes of loss, loneliness, and heartache, all emotions that ran rampant in Elvis' own tumultuous life. Colin Escott's liner notes are excellent, but the track documentation -- which omits which album the songs originally appeared on, where the live performances are from, and any personnel -- is frustratingly sketchy. The graphics and book are adequate, but not up to the standard of other post-early-'90s Elvis collections on RCA. From his first primitive Sun tracks to the last song he commercially recorded, a version of Joe Allison's "He'll Have to Go," Elvis was always at least partially a country singer, and country radio was traditionally his most dedicated outlet. This generous compilation is an indication of how he slotted the Nashville sound into his own larger-than-life palette. Weighed down by its schlocky numbers -- and there are a lot of them -- The Country Side of Elvis is still a fascinating look at one of the many sides of this legendary American artist. Even at his most facile, Elvis sounded inspired when singing this traditionally Southern music, and it's that emotional grip that keeps this collection listenable even through its many rough spots. ~ Hal Horowitz

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