The Bluegrass Elvises, Vol. 1

Shawn Camp / Billy Burnette

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The Bluegrass Elvises, Vol. 1 Review

by Jeff Tamarkin

Just what it says it is: Elvis Presley done bluegrass style, and just about as much fun as it gets. And how could it not be? Bluegrass by its very nature is a good-time, uplifting genre, and Elvis is Elvis. Put the two together, get some hot veteran, retro-minded pickers and singers together, and you've got a party started. That Elvis' material should make the transference to bluegrass so seamlessly is no surprise. The B-side of his very first single on Sun Records, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was, after all, made famous by the architect of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. And although Shawn Camp and Billy Burnette, both of whom have been kicking around the country scene for decades (Burnette's dad, incidentally, was the country/rockabilly hitmaker Dorsey Burnette), omit that particular song from their set list, they otherwise choose judiciously. Camp and Burnette are no strangers, having written dozens of songs together and performed on each other's recordings. Apparently this project was born of a nonchalant studio goof session, and before they knew it they were rolling tape. Nothing came of it at first, but a second session followed years after that initial one, and this time it took. There's still a tossed-off quality to the performances, but that's a good part of the reason it works so well. This isn't the type of project that needed to be tinkered with all that much to hit its mark. Using standard bluegrass instrumentation, Camp and Burnette open with a brief but cute take on "Also Sprach Zarathustra," better known as the signature piece from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Elvis used to open his concerts in the '70s. From there it's deep into the catalog, reaching back to Sun ("That's Alright Mama," "Mystery Train," "Good Rockin' Tonight"), on to the earliest landmarks ("Jailhouse Rock," "Are You Lonesome Tonight," "Don't Be Cruel"), and straight ahead to the latter-day Elvis hits ("Burnin' Love," "A Big Hunk O' Love"). While the arrangements and tempos are often reorganized to a degree, the tunes are all instantly recognizable. No one is trying to reinvent the bluegrass wheel here. One particular highlight though: "Hound Dog," which takes its cue not from the Elvis version at all but rather from Big Mama Thornton's original. Classy. You gotta think that Elvis is smiling, wherever he is.

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