Elvis on the Opry: 'Country Music' looks back on his rough gig

Dave Paulson, Nashville Tennessean

He's probably the most famous person ever to perform on Grand Ole Opry — but Elvis Presley was not a big hit with the audience at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Oct. 2, 1954.

The fourth episode of Ken Burns' "Country Music" documentary delves into Presley's emergence, and all the feathers he ruffled along the way, particularly among country musicians and fans.

At the time, the future king of rock ’n’ roll was a 19-year-old kid — one who'd combined his love of rhythm & blues and country music on his iconic first single: "That's All Right," backed with "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

The former was a blues song originally written and recorded by Arthur Crudup in 1946. The latter was a revolutionary, rocking take on a song by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

The single became "a regional phenomenon." It earned him an invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, where the audience responded "politely, at best," narrates Peter Coyote. He was never invited back.

Elvis Presley made his only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1954. Here, he sings in one of two grandstand shows at the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair on Aug. 26, 1956. The young star caused a near riot with his singing in Tupelo, Miss., where he was born.

Monroe was among those who didn't like what Presley had done to his song — "until the first royalty check came in," Marty Stuart said.

Presley fared much better on the "The Louisiana Hayride" program, where a wildly enthusiastic audience dubbed him "The Hillbilly Cat."

Episode 4 of  "Country Music," titled "I Can't Stop Loving You," is largely fueled by the stories of Presley, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn  — plus Ray Price, Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant and other greats who make appearances. 

But it's also a story of two Tennessee music towns — Nashville and Memphis — and how both played crucial roles in blurring the lines between country, rock and blues. 

About 'Country Music'

"'Country Music' features never-before-seen footage and photographs, plus interviews with more than 80 country music artists," PBS said of the show. "The eight-part 16-hour series is directed and produced by Burns; written and produced by Dayton Duncan; and produced by Julie Dunfey."

The first four episodes airedSept. 15-18, and the final four will air Sept. 22-25.

All episodes are also available to stream on PBS Passport.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Elvis on the Opry: 'Country Music' looks back on his rough gig