Mustang Wine: The Second Comeback of Elvis Presley
He was clearly in bad shape physically and there were rumors going around that he was hooked on prescription drugs. Of course, he had been to the hospital a half dozen times in the past few years, but this time it was different. This time Elvis Presley’s physical condition was actually affecting his work.
In early 1976, RCA, fed up with Elvis’s refusal to to enter a recording studio, built a home studio for the King in the Jungle Room at Graceland. The resulting sessions were only somewhat successful. While From Elvis Presley Boulevard stands as one of his finest moments as an artist, when it came time to assemble Moody Blue, the second album from these sessions there was very little usable material and thus producer Felton Jarvis had to add several recently recorded live tracks to the album, most of them somewhat mediocre. It was clear to almost everybody that, in both his professional career and his personal life, Elvis needed a change.
Then on August 16, 1977, a day before he was set to go on tour, the King of Rock ‘n Roll suffered a massive heart attack on the floor of the upstairs bathroom at Graceland. Paramedics got to him right on time and three months later Elvis left Memphis’s Baptist Memorial Hospital drug free, engaged to girlfriend Ginger Alden, and with plans to get his recording career back on track.
The first thing that had to go was Colonel Tom Parker. Presley replaced him with Steve Binder, who had directed his “Comeback Special” nine years before. And on January 8, 1978, Elvis’s 43rd birthday, he entered the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, bringing with him guitarists Scotty Moore and James Burton, bass player Stu Cook formerly of Creedence Clearwater Revival, drummer D.J. Fontana, and backing vocalists The Sweet Inspirations who would accompany him on the album along with the already legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (MSRS).
The resulting album Mustang Wine was Elvis’s finest since 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis and is often ranked among the finest releases in the entire country-rock canon.
The album begins with the King’s version of “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” a 1958 hit for R&B singer Chuck Willis. Elvis’s declaration that “rock and roll is here to stay” and his confiding to the listener that he don’t wanna hang up his rock and roll shoes is as much a comeback statement as “Trouble” was in 1968.
He slows things down a little bit for the next track, “Fire”, which was sent to him by a young singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen. The MSRS burns up this track, pun intended, beneath Elvis’s slow soulful voice. The song entered the Top 40 in both the U.S. and the U.K., as did “Lucky Town” another Springsteen track Elvis would cover 15 years later.
The duel guitars of Scotty Moore and James Burton dominate the next song, a rockabilly version of Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” which had long been a favorite of Elvis.
He follows this with a passionate rendition of “Since I Don’t Have You” a 1959 hit for Pittsburgh doo-wop group the Skyliners. By taking away the lush orchestration of the original and replacing the male singers with the Sweet Inspirations, Elvis and company create what may be the perfect R&B song.
The next track is a honky-tonk tune called “So Long Mama” written by Rick Nelson and used as the B-side of his classic hit “Garden Party”. The song was very underrated in it’s original version and this version may be even better. Elvis’s voice was made for this type of material.
Side one ends with “Rainy Night in Georgia”, another long-time favorite. He hasn’t sounded this soulful since around the time of 1970’s “Just Pretend” and the MSRS adds to that Southern soul flavor and create the ultimate version of this classic tune.
Side two begins on the country side of things with a run-through of Kris Kristofferson’s “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams”. It was said at the time that many long-time fans were shocked by the foul language (by Elvis’s standards) on the track. But that didn’t stop it from hitting the top of the country charts.
He changes the pace a lot, however, for the next track. It is an acoustic version of Dean Martin’s 1956 hit “Innamorata” performed by Elvis alone and his voice is the main attraction here. The version isn’t as good as the original, but it is excellent nevertheless.
Things gradually pick up with Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” which is given an uptempo arrangement, dueling guitar solos, and a boogie-woogie piano courtesy of Elvis himself.
Next, he covers Phil Ochs’ country tune “Gas Station Women” and offers an excellent version of the song.
This is followed by “Satan’s Jeweled Crown” which was a Louvin Brothers song Elvis had always loved and finally got a chance to record. This version has very minimal instrumentation- just an acoustic guitar, a bass, and the greatest voice in the history of recorded music. He sings it as if telling the story of his own life. Like the writer of “Amazing Grace” who once was lost but is now found, Elvis has conquered his demons, lived to tell the tale, and does so in one of the best performances of his career.
The album ends with the title track, another song sent to Elvis by an up-and-coming songwriter. The songwriter, Steve Earle, went on to have a successful career of his own and this tune, one of the finest rockabilly records to come out after the ’50s ranks among Elvis’s best performances.
Mustang Wine began the second comeback for Elvis Presley and was only eclipsed by his next album Been Down so Long, a blues record featuring the title track, which was a Doors cover Elvis took to the top 10 as well as a Grammy-winning rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail”.
Elvis, now signed to the independent Memphis International Records, is still going strong at the age of 75 and is currently working with T-Bone Burnett on an album tentatively titled Let Us Go Back to God: The Songs of the Soul Stirrers.
So how much of this is true? None of it that has to do with Elvis living and recording after August 16, 1977. However, some of it is plausible and based on actual facts. Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen did indeed originally offer both “Mustang Wine” and “Fire” to Elvis. “Fire” went on to be a hit for the Pointer Sisters and Carl Perkins did a great version of “Mustang Wine”. Also, Elvis did plan to record “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Uncle Pen” at some point, and had been planning to do so for years but never actually got around to doing it. And Memphis International Records is definitely real and you owe it to yourselves to check them out. Everything else is a product of my imagination.
But as John Fogerty said, “Don’t ya wish it was true?”