When Elvis Presley entered RCA's famed Nashville Studio B in June 1970, expectations were high. His last major recording sessions - not counting those for the Universal film Change of Habit - had taken place at Memphis' American Sound Studio with producer Chips Moman, resulting in the acclaimed From Elvis in Memphis LP. Could he follow up that career triumph? Many would argue that he did. Rather than strictly repeat the formula, he and producer Felton Jarvis crafted the concept album Elvis Country and its almost-as-successful follow-up album of leftovers, Love Letters from Elvis. The King was clearly invigorated by his new band including three of the Muscle Shoals boys - bassist Norbert Putnam, pianist David Briggs, and drummer Jerry Carrigan - plus a trio of familiar faces: Chip Young (guitar), Charlie McCoy (harmonica), and stalwart bandleader James Burton (guitar). So, it was entirely expected that RCA would want Presley back in Nashville for another go-round. He obliged, returning to Music City for sessions in March, May, and June 1971. The same band was reassembled save Jerry Carrigan who was unavailable and replaced with Kenny Buttrey, and magic was once again captured. The results were primarily featured on the LPs Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas (1971) and He Touched Me (1972) as well as Elvis Now (1972) and Elvis (Fool) (1973). Now, the curtain has been peeled back on those storied sessions via Back in Nashville, the new box set from RCA and Legacy Recordings.
Over four CDs, Back in Nashville follows the same template as its 2020 predecessor, From Elvis in Nashville. Both box sets have engaged mixing engineer Matt Ross-Spang to strip back the overdubs that graced the final albums to present just Elvis' voice and his band's instruments. One key difference between this box and From Elvis in Nashville, however, is that the 1971 sessions employed the background vocals of The Nashville Edition (on March 15) and The Imperials (on all remaining dates). In cases where the producers and Ross-Spang have felt the background vocals were integral to the arrangement - crucially, including the gospel performances - those voices have remained.
Matt Ross-Spang has accomplished his task with startling clarity, placing Presley's distinctive vocals front and center over the rhythm section to create a raw sound far-removed from the more opulent, finished records which often featured orchestration. The cuts here have been assembled thematically rather than in strict chronological order due to Presley's somewhat unusual approach to recording. Rather than conceiving projects as proper albums, he would record dozens of tracks (42, in this case) which would later be assembled into releases, or "merchandise" as Col. Parker preferred. Compilation producer Ernest Mikael Jorgensen admits in his liner notes that the success of the concept album Elvis Country hardly impacted the decision-making: "Any consideration for artistic integrity, or reflection on the quality of the latest six albums and why they were so successful, seemed totally absent."
RCA requested a Christmas album, a gospel album, and a pop album. The latter reportedly was to focus on folk-oriented repertoire; Elvis enjoyed performing Peter, Paul and Mary songs at household sing-alongs and attempted some songs they had performed including Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." But any plans for a concept album in that vein fell by the wayside. This presentation makes the best possible case for the recordings, however, emphasizing the impressive interplay between Elvis' voice and Chip Young's fluid, evocative guitar. Disc One opens with those remnants, grouped together as The Country/Folk Sides. A small selection of The Piano Recordings, featuring Elvis singing at his most pure with David Briggs' solo accompaniment, follows. Disc One concludes with The Pop Sides, a more traditional array of tunes including Paul Anka's "My Way" (a composition which benefits from bombastic orchestration and feels a bit undernourished here), a delightfully twangy take on the Rube Bloom/Johnny Mercer standard "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)," Mark James' propulsive "It's Only Love" (introduced in 1969 by B.J. Thomas in a Chips Moman production), and British duo Tony Macaulay and Roger Greenaway's moody but melodic "Love Me, Love the Life I Lead" (also recorded by The Fantastics as produced by Macaulay).
The second disc has Ross-Spang's remixes of Presley's gospel and Christmas masters which respectively were assembled on He Touched Me (1972) and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas (1971). The tracks are sequenced to adhere to the original LPs, adding up to alternate versions of each. The gospel tracks are particularly exciting in remixed form, as He Touched Me embraced rock flourishes on cuts such as Andrae Crouch's "I've Got Confidence" and Rod West and Glen Spreen's "Seeing Is Believing," and country-and-western on the likes of Dallas Frazier's "He Is My Everything" (an adaptation of "There Goes My Everything"). Though reverent, He Touched Me wasn't in thrall to traditional gospel; an adventurous and deeply felt foray into inspirational music, it earned Elvis a Grammy Award.
For the Christmas album, The King and his cadre of Nashville Cats blended classic carols with Tin Pan Alley tunes and more current, pop-leaning material. The rollicking "Winter Wonderland" (in which he builds to a bluesy finish), gentle "Silver Bells," and R&B standard "Merry Christmas, Baby" were among the most familiar selections. The latter is heard on Disc Two in an unedited version clocking in at nearly nine minutes' long. The singer initially sounds subdued, but once he finds the groove, he digs in with relish. There are other perfectly imperfect moments here such as a slightly strained but altogether determined "The First Noel," sans The Imperials' tight harmonies. Wonderful World's new songs were of the bittersweet variety (Tony Macaulay's "If I Get Home on Christmas Day," Michael Jarrett's similarly-titled "I'll Be Home on Christmas Day") and sung with just the right notes of authentic wistfulness. There's something undeniably lovely about the lush production of the originally-released Wonderful World - after all, it is a Christmas album! - but those familiar with the multi-platinum LP will surely savor this radically different listen.
The third and fourth discs of Back in Nashville echo the format of the first and second (folk and pop material on Disc 3, gospel and Christmas on Disc 4), but with alternate takes instead of masters. (This format isn't strict, though; there are some additional and/or unedited takes on the first two discs.) Other goodies are sprinkled throughout, including impromptu jams of "Johnny B. Goode" and "Lady Madonna." Most of these raw takes have been previously heard before on Follow That Dream releases and various box sets over the years. But collected in one place, they add to this comprehensive look at Presley in the studio before Felton Jarvis "finished" the recordings to good or ill effect (depending on one's preference).
Back in Nashville is packaged in the same slipcased style as From Elvis in Nashville, Prince from Another Planet, Live 1969, The Searcher, and other RCA/Legacy releases. The discs are housed in a slotted folder adorned with master tape images. The squarebound 28-page booklet has liner notes by Ernst Mikael Jorgensen and David Cantwell, credits, and memorabilia from this period in The King's career. Matt Ross-Spang isn't solely responsible for the terrific sound throughout; Vic Anesini has mastered Ross-Spang's mixes at Battery Studios, and done so with his customary care and attention to every sonic detail.
The audience for Back in Nashville likely exists somewhere between the completists who own every Follow That Dream release and the casual fans who only know the best-selling original albums on which these songs first appeared. For those wishing to hear what Elvis heard in Studio B all those years ago, Back in Nashville is a time machine trip worth taking.
Elvis Presley's Back in Nashville is available now:
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