Review: Elvis Presley 'Back in Nashville'

By: Joe Marchese
Source: The Second Disc
December 19, 2021

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).

Elvis Presley Video 'Until It's Time For You To Go' | take 5

Here is another preview for the upcoming 'Elvis back In Nashville' set, take 5 of 'Until It's Time For You To Go'. This set marks the definitive presentation of Presley's May-June 1971 Nashville studio sessions (his last in Nashville) and will be released on Friday, November 12, 2021. 

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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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Track listing.

Elvis Presley's return in 1970 to recording in Nashville had been revelatory. Those sessions, on the heels of his Memphis recordings and a return to the stage, had done more than simply sustain a comeback. They also introduced Elvis to a great new rhythm section and gifted Elvis with a great new sound. Bassist Norbert Putnam, drummer Jerry Carrigan, and pianist David Briggs had helped transform country music rhythms in the sixties after they transplanted their R&B-indebted style from F. A. M. E. studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to Nashville session work. When producer Felton Jarvis teamed Elvis with the Muscle Shoals boys, along with session guitarist Chip Young, jack of all musical trades Charlie McCoy, and Presley's bandleader James Burton, they together created the belatedly acclaimed Elvis Country - in the process providing Elvis with a country-soul template he'd trace often in the last years of his life.

Music critic Dave Marsh once wrote that, even with his acclaim, 'Elvis Presley was probably the most underrated singer of all'. Overdubs removed, what's revealed on Elvis: Back In Nashville is some of the most compelling singing of Presley's career.

Disc One of Elvis: Back In Nashville features 18 tracks and includes The Country/Folk Sides (an unrealized Elvis project featuring songs by Ewan McColl, Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Bob Dylan), The Piano Recordings (raw Elvis singing Ivory Joe Hunter with piano accompaniment) and The Pop Sides (classic pop compositions including 'Padre', 'Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear To Tread', 'My Way', 'I'm Leavin'' and more).

Elvis: Back In Nashville, the definitive presentation of Presley's May-June 1971 Nashville studio sessions.

Disc Two of Elvis: Back In Nashville features 25 tracks divided between The Religious Sides (classic and contemporary gospel) and The Christmas Sides (sacred and secular seasonal holiday music).

Disc Three of Elvis: Back In Nashville features 19 tracks and picks up on the country pop repertoire of Disc One and adds some rock 'n' roll with a variety of cuts including impromptu performances of 'Johnny B. Goode' and 'Lady Madonna', an epic take on Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, (It's Alright)', fresh interpretations of 'Help Me Make It Through The Night', 'Early Morning Rain' and more.

Disc Four of Elvis: Back In Nashville features 20 tracks and includes The Religious Outtakes and The Christmas Outtakes.

Below, listen to the first track of the new 'Elvis Back In Nashville' set, Take 1 of 'I'm Leaving'.

CD 1:

The Country / Folk Sides:

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Take 11 - 12) - Amazing Grace - Early Mornin' Rain - (That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me - Help Me Make It Through The Night - Until It's Time For You To Go - Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (Unedited Version)

The Piano Recordings:

It's Still Here - I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen - I Will Be True

The Pop Sides:

Padre - Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread) - My Way (Take 2 - 3 Master) - I'm Leavin' - It's Only Love - We Can Make The Morning - Love Me, Love The Life I Lead - Until It's Time For You To Go (Remake)

CD 2:

The Religious Sides:

He Touched Me - I've Got Confidence - Seeing Is Believing - He Is My Everything - Bosom Of Abraham - An Evening Prayer - Lead Me, Guide Me - There Is No God But God A Thing Called Love - I, John - Reach Out To Jesus - Put Your Hand In The Hand - Miracle Of The Rosary

The Christmas Sides:

O Come, All Ye Faithful - The First Noel - On A Snowy Christmas Night - Winter Wonderland - The Wonderful World Of Christmas - It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You) - I'll Be Home On Christmas Day - If I Get Home On Christmas Day - Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees - Merry Christmas Baby (Unedited) - Silver Bells - I'll Be Home On Christmas Day (Remake)

CD 3:

It's Only Love (Take 8 & 9) - Love Me, Love The Life I Lead (Take 5 & 6) - We Can Make The Morning (Master With Backing Vocals) - I'm Leavin' (Take 1) - Johnny B. Goode (Impromptu Performance) - Padre (Take 1 & 11) - Lady Madonna (Impromptu Performance) - Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread) (Take 6) - Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Fragment - Impromptu Performance) - I Will Be True (Take 1 - 2) - It's Still Here (Take 1 & 3) - Help Me Make It Through The Night (Take 1 - 3) - (That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me (Take 1) - Until It's Time For You To Go (Take 5) - Early Mornin' Rain (Take 1 & 11) - I Shall Be Released (Impromptu Performance) - Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (Remake) - Put Your Hand In The Hand (Rehearsal & Take 1) - Amazing Grace (Take 1 - 2)

CD 4:

The Religious Outtakes:

Miracle Of The Rosary (Take 1) - The Lord's Prayer (Impromptu Performance) - He Touched Me (Take 1 - 2) - I've Got Confidence (Take 1) - An Evening Prayer (Take 1 - 2) - Seeing Is Believing (Take 1, 2 & 4) - A Thing Called Love (Take 3) - Reach Out To Jesus (Take 1, 2 & 9) - He Is My Everything (Take 1) - There Is No God But God (Take 1 - 2) - Bosom Of Abraham (Take 2 - 3)

The Christmas Outtakes:

I'll Be Home On Christmas Day (Take 3) - It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You) (Take 1 & 6) - If I Get Home On Christmas Day (Take 3) - Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees (Take 4) - Silver Bells (Take 1) - I'll Be Home On Christmas Day (Take 4) - Winter Wonderland (Take 7) - O Come, All Ye Faithful (Take 2) - I'll Be Home On Christmas Day - remake (Take 1, 4, 5 & 10)

Tracks LP

Side A:

I'm Leavin' (Take 1) - It's Only Love (Take 9) - We Can Make The Morning (Master With Backing Vocals) - Love Me, Love The Life I Lead (Take 5 & 6) - My Way (Take 3 - Master)

Side B

Country / Folk:

Help Me Make It Through The Night (Take 3) - Early Mornin' Rain (Take 11) - Until It's Time For You To Go (Remake) - Lady Madonna (Impromptu Performance) - (That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me (Take 1) - I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen

Side C


Seeing Is Believing - An Evening Prayer (Take 2) - I've Got Confidence (Take 1) - Put Your Hand In The Hand - He Touched Me (Take 1 - 2) - Bosom Of Abraham (Take 2 - 3)

Side D


If I Get Home On Christmas Day (Take 3) - I'll Be Home On Christmas Day (Take 4) - Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees (Take 4) - Merry Christmas Baby (Unedited).

LP Record | Elvis: Back In Nashville, the definitive presentation of Presley's May-June 1971 Nashville studio sessions.

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Elvis Presley Video Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.

This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.

The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.

Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.