Elvis, Bill Monroe, and that Ol’ Blue Moon of Kentucky
Bill Monroe wrote “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and recorded it with his Bluegrass Boys in 1946, and Columbia released it the next year. This little waltz became a hit. Then producer Sam Phillips, bassist Bill Black, guitarist Scotty Moore, and a 19-year-old kid, who had just secured a job as a truck driver and was planning to marry his girlfriend, Dixie–tore the thing to shreds. But what came out was so good that even Monroe re-recorded it himself in 4/4 time rather than the original 3/4 after hearing–and seeing–Elvis’s perform it and at the Louisiana Hayride. (See Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis, pages 121-129, for a more detailed account of this interesting collision of musical worlds.) Phillips was relieved when the country legend and “founder” of Bluegrass offered praises rather than the anticipated scorn for Presley’s version of his tune. At 19, Elvis somehow had the instinct to sing the song perfectly. Even the songwriter admitted it.
However, this isn’t too surprising. No matter how critical a person is of Elvis’s career as a whole, hardly anyone will deny the owerwhelming accomplishment of the Sun Sessions. Turns out that they guy who wrote Elvis’s second release and started the bluegrass movement feels the same way. Rock writers like Nick Tosches and Greil Marcus provide sufficient reason for defecting from the American cult of Elvis worship. Even Tosches who thinks rock and roll was pretty much over before Elvis got his bumbling hands—in his estimation—on popular music, even he gives them their due. Similarly, in Greil Marcus’s famed “Presliad” section of Mystery Train, he gives an overall negative review of Elvis’s career, but stands behind the Sun Sessions as a truly brilliant artistic breakthrough.
Whether it was the beginning of rock & roll or not, it doesn’t matter. All those words–bluegrass, rock and roll, blues, jazz, etc. etc.–start blurring together when we listen to tracks like these closely. Influences are too ubiquitous to draw any strict delineations like that–or even limit considerations of influence to other musicians, for that matter. But what led Monroe to praise the upbeat version of “Kentucky”? Two of the prime characteristics Monroe tried to capture with his music were a “defined a hard-edged style” and “a fast, driving tempo”*. Who delivers on those two categories better than Elvis does on the Sun Sessions. Elvis strikes that moment of recording perfection in the Sun Sessions (similar to Dylan’s Highway 61 or The Band’s The Band). He’s so good that for a moment he even manages to out-bluegrass the Father of Bluegrass.
*Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Bill Monroe biographic entry, Smithsonian Global Sound.
Article also published at A MISSING AMERICA.