Raised on country here in Tupelo, first introduced as “The Hillbilly Cat,” then by RCA Victor as “the hottest new name in country music,” Elvis Presley’s revolutionary musical mix always had country as a key ingredient. Appearing on the country charts over 50 times, Presley’s music pushed traditional country towards the modernizing Nashville Sound, which followed the pop, if not the rock ‘n roll path he’d fashioned. Elvis would record the country songs he loved throughout his career.
Born in Tupelo on January 8, 1935, Elvis Aron Presley grew up in a household that knew and valued country music, playing records by Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, listening to Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff on the radio. By age ten Elvis was singing Red Foley’s “Old Shep” at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair at the Fairgrounds here; he received his first guitar the following year. While rhythm and blues, Southern gospel, and pop would all be part of the Elvis Presley repertoire, country songs and his country music legacy, which began here, would have their own important place in it.
He took a secondary role in a local band during his high school years in Memphis, as they played songs by his future label mates Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. His first records, produced at Sun Records in Memphis in the mid-1950s, included tunes in roughly equal measure from country and R&B sources. The rock ’n roll style he developed there, along with band members Scotty Moore and Bill Black and producer Sam Phillips, demonstrated enough twang that it came to be known as rockabilly, and Elvis himself was promoted as “The Hillbilly Cat.” His Southern regional fame grew with regular appearances on the Louisiana Hayride, the adventurous live country broadcast out of Shreveport. It seemed completely appropriate to audiences that Presley was soon on tour with Hank Snow, Slim Whitman and Faron Young, making connections that led to his signing by RCA Victor records and, before long, global fame.
Elvis would consistently place hit songs on the country charts as well as the pop charts for years to come. Ten Presley records were Number One country, and such classics as “A Fool Such as I,” “Always On My Mind,” “There Goes My Everything” and “Green, Green Grass of Home” would be as much Presley signature tunes as they were for the strictly country artists who also recorded them.
In the late 1950s, the massively successful Presley pop style and rock ’n roll’s appeal to younger audiences were seen as threats to country’s future, but the modern “Nashville Sound” created as an answer took lush arrangements, rhythmic backing singers, and more from the Presley playbook, which was created in Nashville studios, often with the same musicians. Elvis Presley never stopped performing country music throughout his career. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998, twenty-one years after his death.
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