|Following the recent release of the Legacy Edition of Elvis Presley’s “I’m 10,000 Years Old: Elvis Country,” Harley Payette explains why he thinks that the album “tells us as much about the man who created it as anything he ever did.”|
In January 1971, RCA records slipped its latest Elvis Presley LP on the market, not two months after the previous one. That record, “I’m 10,000 Years Old: Elvis Country,” the singer’s 30th of original material (excluding live collections, compilations and greatest hits sets), wasn’t just another Elvis LP. It was an honest to gosh concept LP. The songs were not only linked stylistically and thematically, but all the performances were linked by splices of a song interspersed between each number.
|Even the cover wasn’t the usual head shot of a smiling Elvis, concert pose, or movie still. In their place was a sepia toned photo of a very familiar looking young boy. A smaller black and white photo, which included the parents, revealed that the unsmiling child was Elvis Presley aged two. Clearly, Elvis was trying to do something that he had never done before, revealing something about himself in the process.|
Prior to this moment, concept albums had been as far away from the image of Elvis Presley as bowling alleys were from Zsa Zsa Gabor. In the bloom of the goodwill created by his comeback, the music press of the era, with a few exceptions, was generous to this new stance, with an especially enthusiastic write up appearing in Rolling Stone.
Despite its ambition and the good press, the album came and went commercially. While it was far from a flop, peaking at #12 and selling half a million units, the numbers it moved were not any better than any of the LPs Presley had released during the past two years, and certainly came nowhere near the barnstorming numbers of Presley’s early ’60s hit soundtracks like “GI Blues” and “Blue Hawaii”. Nor did they match the success of the live albums that would dominate Presley’s public profile in the upcoming decade. They were also short of the numbers put up by acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin; other artists who assailed the top of the charts in the early 1970s. In the end, it became just another Elvis album instead of a defining artistic moment. A slew of subsequent country releases by RCA then BMG using the Elvis Country title made it something even less. Somehow this most personal and purposeful release became indistinguishable in the public mind from the hordes of slapped together compilations that have so defined Elvis’ output for the past five decades. “But I thought THIS was ‘Elvis Country.'” This month, the Sony Legacy label has taken a step, albeit a tentative one, to reverse that perception with their new re-release of the LP. This makes it a good time to draw attention to this remarkable document from the last time in Elvis Presley’s career when his ambition matched his talent.
|When 1970 began, Elvis was scalding hot, both artistically and commercially, after being out in the cold for a long time. After seeing his recording and movie career bottom out in mid-1968, Elvis stormed back at the end of that year with the highest rated television special of the year, a show that reminded fans of what Elvis had once been and what he still could be. A single from that show “If I Can Dream” sold about 800,000 copies domestically, made the Top Ten in Cashbox and just missed it in Billboard, the best numbers for any Elvis release since 1965.|
From there he moved from strength to strength for most of the next year. In January and February 1969, he recorded a series of songs in Memphis, Tennessee under the supervision of Chips Moman and with the American Studios’ house band. The initial series of singles released from those sessions- “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Don’t Cry Daddy,” in combination with “If I Can Dream” and “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” a smaller hit from one of Elvis’ final and more interesting movies, made Elvis Cashbox’s singles artists of the year. The initial LP from those sessions, “From Elvis in Memphis,” wasn’t as successful commercially although it went Gold and made the Top 15, success mostly out of Elvis’ reach since 1966. More importantly, it received a rave lead review from future Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick in Rolling Stone, the first LP accorded such respect in the magazine’s then short history. It has since been almost universally recognized as one of Presley’s most enduring achievements.
In the summer of 1969, Presley returned to live performance in Las Vegas with similar success. Creating one of the most ambitious live shows of its era, Presley floored audiences and critics in both the establishment and underground press with a show that combined nearly all the streams of the mainstream American pop tradition save jazz. The show was so popular that it became the first show in Las Vegas history to make a profit. (Normally shows in Vegas are loss leaders designed to pull people into the casino.)
Elvis on stage at the International, Las Vegas in August 1969
Bizarrely, Presley’s manager “Colonel” Tom Parker elected not to send Elvis out on the road in the wake of that triumph, but to rebook him in Vegas only four months later. Presley, though, was so hot that he effortlessly turned that lemon into lemonade. In late January through mid-February 1970 with “Don’t Cry Daddy” peaking in the Top Ten, Elvis remade his live show. Rather than playing the returning hero, he became Vegas’ King of the Top 40. Scratching many of the oldies from his act, Elvis played his current string of hits and included a slew of songs into the act- “Proud Mary,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”- that had just recently been in the Top 40. He also threw in a sprinkling of revamped older songs- “See See Rider,” “Release Me,” “Let it Be Me,” “The Wonder of You”- that had not previously been recorded by/or associated with him. All the newly added material continued to reflect Presley’s democratic musical vision, incorporating everything from traditional blues to adult contemporary.
|Despite taking place in the dead season for tourism, again the show drew record crowds. Again, the reviews were largely ecstatic. RCA took eight songs from the stand and two from the previous engagement and released a highly successful live album of all previously unrecorded material for Presley, an unusual, if not wholly unprecedented move. The album, “Elvis On Stage,” eventually moved a million copies.|
“The Wonder of You” the single pulled from the LP became one of Presley’s signature tunes, selling a million and making the Top Ten in the US and Number One in the UK.
In March, Presley was booked into the Astrodome as the main attraction of the Houston Livestock show. He played four shows, afternoon and evenings, over a weekend. The evening shows both broke attendance records.
Not since the 1950s had Elvis sustained such a string of unqualified successes. This was the environment that informed Elvis’ return to the recording studio in June 1970 for his first recording sessions since the epochal teaming in Memphis with Chips Moman more than a year before. Although Presley was pleased with the results of the Moman sessions, he was not in love with the producer’s heavy-handed and rigidly-structured style of recording. Presley preferred a more spontaneous approach. Additionally, the singer and his in-house producer Felton Jarvis did some post-op overdubs on “Suspicious Minds” that rankled Moman. So, Elvis and Jarvis returned to Nashville, the city that hosted the vast majority of Presley’s sessions.
Jarvis wasn’t going to let things go stale though. He had hired a new band to back Elvis, including guitarist James Burton, who led the singer’s on stage unit, hot young session players like Chip Young, Jerry Carrigan, and Norbert Putnam, and old hands like Charlie McCoy. Many of the players had played in producer Rick Hall’s legendary Muscle Shoals Band.
Flush with the confidence of his recent success, Presley dived into the sessions with enthusiasm. As he had since the ’50s, he approached the sessions as a voyage of discovery. There might be a few preordained objectives going into the session (in these sessions a version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” seemed to fall into this category), but in general Presley liked to wade his way through demos until he found something he liked. If he didn’t, he’d recall something from the musical past that he could inject with new life. This was not quite as off the cuff as it sounds. Some titles Presley had considered for years before the moment was right. Recording such as “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” were born this way, just as earlier recordings had been, including “Reconsider Baby,” “After Loving You” and “Stranger in My Own Hometown.”
Elvis Presley – “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”
The sessions, which began on June 4, 1970, got off to a good start. Elvis recorded a first rate original adult contemporary ballad in “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights,” a couple of originals he believed in, but to which time has not been especially kind in “I’ve Lost You” and “The Sound of Your Cry,” along with some terrific blasts from the past. Arguably, the best of these were loose and improvisational attacks at Bill Monroe’s “A Hundred Years From Now,” and “Little Cabin on the Hill.” The bluegrass tunes were the most down home country of any Elvis recordings since Sun, unabashed hillbilly music. No one would hear a “A Hundred Years From Now” for another two and a half decades, but “Little Cabin on the Hill,” along with “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” and a remake of Sanford Clark’s rockabilly mini-classic “The Fool,” would take on a completely unanticipated function, one that no Presley songs had fulfilled to that point.
Despite the strong start, the sessions slowed up, especially in their quest to create hit single material. The reason for this was because Presley’s publishing companies were not able to provide a first-rank supply of new material. Presley and Parker had always agreed to give priority to material that had come from their publishing companies, administered through Hill and Range, because the publishing industry was and is, for the most part, more lucrative than recording. This strategy had worked fine in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Hill and Range had a stable of strong writers like Don Robertson, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, and Otis Blackwell among others. At the same time, Elvis was so much hotter than the rest of the industry that even writers outside the houses could be convinced to make deals because their piece of the pie on one of his cuts was so large. Neither of those situations were the case anymore in 1970.
While Elvis was still a big seller, he was no longer tops in the industry. Plus, the industry had expanded so much that a half million or million selling record was no longer the rarity it once had been. It was a much easier decision for a songwriter to gamble with a new potential hit song.
Compounding the problem was the fact that Hill and Range’s stable of great writers virtually vanished. Some like Leiber, Stoller and Mort Shuman (although he contributed a title in 1969) had flown the coop for greener, or at least different, pastures. Some like Otis Blackwell, Don Robertson, and Doc Pomus had dried up creatively at that time. The industry had changed as well with many songwriters now opting for a career in performing instead of providing material for other performers. The few great remaining non-performing writers were often bound to production deals with record labels or their own artists, or owned their own publishing companies. So, although they still managed to introduce a few solid writers like Eddie Rabbitt (who co-wrote “Kentucky Rain”), none of the new brood were able to fill the shoes of the company’s former stars. Worse, the majority of Hill and Range’s 1970 staff were pedestrian at best. As the decade wore on and Presley became less inspired, this became an increasing problem, and most of Elvis’ better hits came from outside the confines of Hill and Range or were remakes.
Elvis arriving at RCA’s Studio B on June 5, 1970.
In June 1970, Elvis was content to let his personal tastes and memory, along with Hill and Range lead the way. The trouble was the discrepancy between the two. The next two nights, Elvis led the way through first rate remakes of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” Muddy Water’s “Got My Mojo Working” and Al Martino’s “Mary in the Morning.” To be fair, there were a handful of better than solid Hill and Range songs recorded, out of their dozens of submissions, “Just Pretend,” “Stranger in the Crowd,” “How the Web Was Woven” (a British copyright purchased by the company and a hit in its native land for Jackie Lomax), and “It’s Your Baby, You Rock It.” None of these songs were even close to single material though. (Eventually, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” would be the single and would do extremely well.) What’s more, the paucity of good Hill and Range work wore Elvis down to the point where he was elevating the second team.
Elvis Presley – “It’s Your Baby, You Rock It”
The third night of the sessions, ended with Elvis laying down three inferior tracks in a row including one of his all time worst- “Life,” a melodically challenged attempt to explain the universe. When the fourth night of the sessions began with another non-descript ballad from the Hill and Range stable, it seemed the sessions that had gotten off to such a promising start would end up an anti-climax, Elvis’ first step backwards in his recent renaissance.
Then, almost out of the blue, Elvis tore into Don Robertson’s ballad “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” a number that had been a hit for Eddie Arnold, Les Paul and Mary Ford, and Tommy Edwards, and that had always defined the poppiest edge of country music. Elvis didn’t perform it like a pop number though. He didn’t perform it as a country number either. He sang it like it was blues. It was the same type of reinvention he used at Sun on “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “That’s All Right Mama” all those years ago. Now instead of Sam Phillips recognizing the moment and catching it for posterity, it was Elvis himself. The song set him on a fit of inspiration. Next thing he laid into an absolutely rocking version of Bob Wills’ standard “Faded Love.” A few nights before, Elvis had planned to record the song, but had been put off because he didn’t have the lyrics. Now he did and there was no putting him off. He had a knockout master in one take.
Then it was onto an almost operatic reading of Ernest Tubb’s “Tomorrow Never Comes.” With the exception of a brief side step into the pleasing but dated pop number “The Next Step is Love,” Elvis was into a complete country jam. Soon he had laid down a version of “Make the World Go Away,” an acidic reading of Willie Nelson’s country soul classic ‘Funny How Time Slips Away” and a version of “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” that sounded like the jailbreak its lyrics described.
Elvis Presley – “Tomorrow Never Comes”
Norbert Putnam described being caught up in the momentum of Presley’s stroke of genius to writer Gillian G. Gaar:
|“I was amazed at how loose my playing was; I was playing like I had no fear of making a mistake or doing anything wrong. I was sort of going for it all the time, like Elvis was.”|
The run continued the next night when Elvis opened the session with an impassioned rendition of “There Goes My Everything.” Material quickly ran out, but Elvis and Jarvis recognized on the spot that what had developed in the last nights of the sessions was the core of a first rate country and western album. Elvis even spoke of the upcoming country theme album on stage in Vegas that summer.
To his credit, Jarvis recognized that, even with the fine country material that opened the sessions added in, a little bit more material was needed to make a really fine country album. In September, Jarvis got Elvis to come into the studio to complete the set. Elvis wasn’t in the greatest mood to record, but he came up with the two final pieces of the puzzle- a version of “Snowbird” that didn’t change a ton from Anne Murray’s hit recording but was deeply felt and eventually led off the LP, and an absolutely furious smash through “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The fist clenching anger at the heart of Presley’s version made any comparisons to Jerry Lee’s hit moot.
Somewhere along the line, Presley and Jarvis decided against including the gospel traditional “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” in its entirety on the LP, despite the aesthetic similarity to much of the material on the collection. Instead they opted to chop the song in splices that would link each song to the next and make some sort of vague comment on the proceedings. The duo felt so strongly about the importance of the linking track that they used a modified version of the song’s title, “I’m 10,000 Years Old,” as the name of the album. “Elvis Country” is actually the subtitle. The move transformed what was a theme album into a full fledged concept album.
RCA’s art department got the hint, and contributed one of the most memorable covers of all Presley’s LPs. Although, Elvis’ debut LP and the Gold Records would contribute more well remembered covers, no Presley cover better conveyed the contents of the LP.
|To that point, relatively few people had seen the now iconic photo of the two-year-old Elvis clad in overalls and a broad hat that donned the cover. The first photo ever taken of the future legend, it appeared in Jerry Hopkins’ biography which arrived almost simultaneously with the LP. For a man who did not like to publicly remind people of his upbringing, it said a lot that Elvis would permit its use as the face of his new collection of music.|
That’s because this was an LP that said a lot about Elvis. More than any other album in his canon, it is here that Elvis makes the statement: “This is who I am. This is what I’m about.”
That sense of personal disclosure can be seen in the title and subtitle of the collection. “I’m 10,000 Years Old” captured the impact that Elvis had on the pop scene. Although, he had only been a superstar for less than 15 years when the LP came out, to the rock audience it seemed as if he had been there forever. His rise coincided with the rise of the mass media as we would know it- television, radio, movies, and the press. He was basically the only superstar of that initial era to make it into the 1970s intact. (Brando’s resurrection was still a year and a half in the future.) Personally, he had been on a journey that had taken so many diverse twists and turns that he felt older than his years. He would often joke on stage that he had originally had a hit with “Hound Dog” in 1912.
Even the subtitle, which would seem standard due to the nature of the material, is much more personal. This is not just Elvis singing country songs. This is literally Elvis’ country music. It’s the songs that made him like the bluegrass of Bill Monroe and the country swing of Bob Wills. It’s the stuff that his success made possible including everything from rockabilly like “The Fool” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On,” to the countrypolitan bombast of “Tomorrow Never Comes,” to the light country pop of “Snowbird” that would guide many artists to crossover success in the 1970s. Even the LP’s sole original song “It’s Your Baby, You Rock it” was based upon one of the singer’s pet expressions.
When I first got “I’m 10,000 Years Old: Elvis Country” in the mid-1980s, I was amazed at how hard rocking it was. This seemed an odd contradiction on what I thought was going to be a strictly country record. That contradiction is another part of Elvis Presley’s peculiar brand of country. At his best, Presley mixed and matched genres to the point where the performances reside in no recognizable genre save his own. Many times the distance would seem irreconcilable, but he’d still go there. You hear that all over this album.
There’s the blues interpretation of “I Really Don’t Want to Know.” The organ on “Funny How Time Slips Away” underlines why that track has long been a standard in both soul and country. The phrasing and vocal improvisations on many of the tracks bear a closer relationship to gospel than country, although the material and arrangements make the music’s origins clear. “Faded Love” is a prime example. It’s an old country swing tune with a resigned, melancholic lyric that aches of old school Nashville, but James Burton’s guitar solo is all rock n’ roll. Elvis’ vocal drawls enough to be country, but borrows its sense of liberation from gospel. In the end, it can’t be classified as anything but Elvis music.
Elvis Presley – “Faded Love”
He did a lot of the same things with emotions. Gaar commented on the sense of triumph that Elvis imparted to the ending of “Tomorrow Never Comes.” This is an odd note since the song details the end of a breakup. It also was one of Elvis’ most unique gifts. On the surface, it’s Sam Phillips’ mantra of take a sad song and make it happy. But it’s really a manifestation of Presley’s joy in performance. He gives us the meaning of the lyrics, but he also allows us to vicariously taste his joy in performing them. It’s what he does on “Suspicious Minds” and “Mystery Train” and it’s what he does on this song. In the end, it deepens the recordings because it gives us an insight into what happens on the other end, when the songs fade out.
Taken as a whole, this was arguably the most ambitious LP that the singer had undertaken to that point. “From Elvis in Memphis” and the accompanying singles had proved that Elvis was not a figure of the past, that he was aware of contemporary concerns and musical trends. “I’m 10,000 Year Old: Elvis Country” was a step further. A gauntlet had been thrown down. Albums, much more than singles, were now the prime vehicle of expression for rock n’ roll performers. And a great album was no longer simply a collection of great performances. It was now its own statement with each individual piece connected to one another to make a greater point. Performers of the era had also eliminated the lines between themselves and their work. In the 1950s, an artist expressed a point about the world in their work, and their performances could be heartfelt and reflect their worldview. But it was never personal or autobiographical. There was never a sense that it was literally the singer’s experiences emanating through the speakers. In 1970, performers now used their music as a window into their direct personalities.
To this point, Elvis had never tried either method of expression, at least not as pop singer. His gospel LPs showed Elvis thinking beyond song to song, but there was no attempt to link the songs. And there was no overt attempt to allow us an inside view of Elvis. The 1969 recordings had shown that Elvis could perform in the new styles, but was this new mode and style of expression beyond him? “I’m 10,000 Years Old: Elvis Country” answered that question. For the only time in his career, a Presley LP was its own entity, something more than a marketing tool to feature individual performances.
But most people missed it. Today, the LP is known among some rock critics and diehard Elvis fans and that’s about it. What Elvis tried to do has been wiped from the record. What should have been a watershed release has been reduced to a footnote at best. Part of the problem was the marketing strategy of Presley’s record label RCA, which seemed predicated on the idea that the revival of interest in Elvis was a temporary condition mandating the need to maximize quick profits. When “I’m 10,000 Years Old: Elvis Country” was released in January 1971, it was the ninth Elvis album released by RCA in the past eight months, a pace that would have even given a 1950s budget label pause. Most of these LPs were repackages including budget releases, but they were all packaged with a contemporary photo of Elvis and at the very least most of them contained material that hadn’t been available in a while. It was a release schedule that would have taxed the finances of all but the most well heeled Elvis fanatic. And when you’re releasing nine LPs in one year, often fanatics are the only people willing to wade through it all.
|Amazingly, RCA compounded their error by releasing the LP a mere six weeks after Elvis’ most recent collection of new music, a mix of studio and live work called “Elvis: That’s the Way it is”. It was a move that cut the market for both albums. Fans who knew that Presley had a new studio album out would have to choose, if they didn’t have enough to buy two at one time. Or they might pick up one LP or the other thinking that it was “the new Elvis.”|
One could also imagine that stores had much the same problem, stocking one or the other, not perhaps even dreaming that RCA would release two new products so close together.
Ironically, the strength of the 45 pulled from the album, “I Really Don’t Want to Know”/”There Goes My Everything,” also probably curbed its appeal. Among the people who actually heard it, the single did very well, approaching three quarters of a million copies in the US alone. The problem was that stations played both sides. “I Really Don’t Want to Know” hit #21 on the Billboard Hot 100, but “There Goes My Everything” was played enough to merit its own chart tagalong position. When airplay is split, it often keeps either side from getting enough momentum to make a broad impact. That meant fewer people knew there was a new Elvis LP out that contained these songs.
Elvis Presley – “I Really Don’t Want to Know”
Also, the country aspect of the project may have been a turnoff to some fans, particularly the youth market that was most likely to appreciate a concept album. Country rock had not become a commercial force. While some country stars like Glenn Campbell and Johnny Cash had crossed into the mainstream, their appeal was mostly limited to adults. To the youth audience, the fact that it was a country album probably disguised the fact that Elvis was doing something new here. Hadn’t he been covering country songs since the beginning?
On the other side, the country audience may have resented the concept album idea. Despite valiant efforts by Cash and some others, country was still a very conservative market in the early 1970s. The traditional audience may have resented Elvis’ attempt to gussy up their music, just as their parents had 20 years earlier. Even many diehard Elvis fans found the linking song distracting or annoying.
Elvis and Parker did the LP no favors as well by giving it no extra special promotion. Elvis featured some of the songs in his stage show and mentioned his new country LP, but he engaged in no interviews or any other sort of promotion that would have whetted the public’s appetite and explained what he was trying to accomplish. This was largely standard course for the operation. Presley LPs generally sold themselves as he had a large fan base that bought everything he did. Albums would move beyond that base usually when they featured a hit single, or were connected to larger project like a movie or TV show. The base, though, was enough to keep everything profitable. The problem was that this was not just another record. If Elvis really wanted to make a statement with the album, he had an obligation to let the public know that’s what he wanted to do.
As if that weren’t enough, “I’m 10,000 Years Old: Elvis Country” had the misfortune to be released during, arguably, the greatest year ever for LPs in rock ‘n’ soul history. “Sticky Fingers,” “What’s Going on,” “Who’s Next,” “Led Zeppelin IV,” “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” “Every Picture Tells a Story,” and “Imagine” were only a handful of the career defining albums released in 1971. While Elvis was doing one of his best, many in the industry were releasing their very best. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle, particularly when Elvis’ organization from top to bottom made no effort at placing their record among the industry’s elite.
Still, over the years the LP has gained a slow but steady appreciation in the public eye (an appreciation that has not translated into sales partly because of RCA abusing the Elvis and country concept and partly because Elvis is not associated with albums). It received five star reviews in the Rolling Stone Record Guide as well as the All Music Guide. In 2000 Mojo included it in their list of the 1,000 greatest albums ever made. It also made an Uncut list of underrated albums. And reviews of the recent reissue have been very positive.
All of which makes it sad because if the response to the LP had been greater there might have been more like it. Save for one more gospel and Christmas LP, this was the last anyone ever saw of Elvis Presley album maker. It was also the last anyone ever saw of Elvis Presley the invigorated artist willing to find new outlets for his talent. While he would have the occasional stroke of inspiration that led to some great records now and then, he was never again able to deliberately channel it as he did here. Save for some records about his divorce, he never again had that something he was just busting to say on record as he did here. In March 1971, with the concept record still on the charts, Elvis went into the studio seemingly bound to do what he had done with country, almost a year before, with folk music. Sadly, the session was limited to four songs because the singer came down with an eye infection. The next time he was back in the studio in May, the folk idea has been largely forgotten. Perhaps discouraged by the lack of public reaction to “I’m 10,000 Years Old,” he figured “why bother?”
Regretting what could have been shouldn’t keep us from appreciating what actually was though. “I’m 10,000 Years Old: Elvis Country” did not need to start a trend. It stands as a unique collection of powerfully personal music that tells us as much about the man who created it as anything he ever did. For that we should be grateful.
Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback – Gillian Gaar
Elvis Presley: A Life in Music – Ernst Jorgensen
“Elvis Country – Legacy Edition” is available now from:
Elvis Country – Legacy Edition (2 CDs)
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Tags: Elvis Country Legacy Edition, Elvis Presley, Harley Payette, I'm 10000 Years Old: Elvis Country
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