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25 years after his death, Elvis' love of country music shines

Story by Chris Neal

Elvis Presley's leg was shaking - but not for the usual reason. On the night of Oct. 2, 1954, Elvis was as nervous as he'd ever been. After all, he was playing the Grand Ole Opry.

For a kid with only two little-known singles to his name, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Elvis had grown up listening to the Opry. When his big moment came, he bounded onto the stage, ready to tear up the audience in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium just as he'd been doing to screaming crowds all over the South.

But as he wrapped up his reworked version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," Elvis heard only polite applause. No screams, no girls passing out, no frenzied rushing of the stage.

He was not invited back to the Opry.

No matter. Between that botched Opry appearance and his belated induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame decades later (in 1998), Elvis would change the course of country music forever.

He was as qualified as anyone to do so - his roots in country were strong and deep. Born in 1935, Elvis grew up poor in rural Tupelo, Miss., listening to country stars on the radio. The first song he sang in public, at age 10, was Red Foley's "Old Shep."

"Country music was always an influence," he said later. "My type of music is a combination of country music, gospel, rhythm and blues. As a child, I was influenced by all of that."

By the time his family moved to Memphis, Elvis was hoping to be a professional singer, and he began hanging around the famed Sun Studios. Upon meeting him in 1953, Sun receptionist Marion Keisker asked, "What kind of music do you sing? Hillbilly?"

"I sing hillbilly," Elvis replied.

"Well, who do you sound like in hillbilly?" she pressed.

"I don't sound like nobody," he shrugged.

Given his shot, he would prove it. A year later inside the same studios, he arguably invented rock 'n' roll with "That's All Right" - recorded at the same sessions as his unruly version of "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," the song that went over like a lead balloon at the Opry.

Read the rest of Elvis' journey through Country in the current Newsstand Issue!