Originally published in the Feb. 7, 1995 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Mark Chesnutt had a tour fit for The King.
A big star of today who’s still a huge fan of Elvis, Mark, who’s currently riding high on the charts with “Going Through the Big D,” took a break from his heavy touring schedule recently to visit Elvis’ Graceland mansion in honor of the legend’s 60th birthday.
“Elvis was the perfect star,” said Mark, a lifelong fan of Elvis who admits he gets a little tingle when his name appears on marquees that once advertised Elvis’ name. While thousands of fans collect Mark Chesnutt autographs and other memorabilia, Mark collects Elvis books, movies and records.
“He had looks, personality, the voice and was just so much better than everybody else,” Mark told COUNTRY WEEKLY when we accompanied him on his visit to Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn.
First it was off to Graceland and its 14 acres of hallowed ground for Elvis worshipers. As he walked down the driveway to the front gates, he mused aloud, “I wonder how many times he just walked down here?”
The museum housing the Presley car collection also drew Mark’s interest. He closely checked out the exotic autos, from a 1956 Continental Mark II to a purple convertible, and Elvis jet, the *Lisa Marie*, named after his daughter.
Before leaving, Mark visited the stone wall surrounding the grounds. Thousands of fans had scribbled messages: “Elvis, 18 years and still loving you. Dora”; “Elvis, see you next year. Juan C.”; “Hey, Elvis, next time leave a number. Love Angie.”
Then the latest words were written on the wall of tribute: “Mark Chesnutt, ’95.”
En route from Graceland to historic Beale Street, the 31-year-old native of Beaumont, Texas, explained his Elvis fixation. “I was kind of born into it, and for people my age, he was the biggest thing there,” he said.
Mark researches every venue he plays to see if Elvis ever performed on the same stage and gets all shook up if he has.
“It still fascinates me to see where he was and makes me feel like he’s more of a person now that I’m in the music business and playing in some of the same places and even staying in some of the same hotels. You can feel a presence there.”
Elvis serves as a career inspiration for Mark. “I’m still learning every day from him ‑‑ about stage presence because he had so much charisma onstage and offstage, he was constantly putting on a show.”
Chesnutt loves the early Elvis movies. “They remind me of back when I was a little kid and couldn’t wait to see an Elvis movie on TV late at night. I never paid attention to his acting ‑‑ I just wanted to hear him sing.”
If Mark ever had the chance to talk to Elvis, what would he say? “I’d tell him that he was the greatest entertainer I’ve ever seen or heard…. He was no superhuman, he was just a guy who was blessed with a lot of talent and he wasn’t selfish with it. He worked his butt off to please his fans and to impress people. I just want to tell him that he really impressed one ol’ redneck here.”
If you have an Elvis joke, don’t tell it to Mark. “I hate the Elvis jokes and I don’t think they’re funny at all. He worked real hard all his life to entertain everybody, and he literally worked himself to death.”
The Center for Southern Folklore on historic Beale Street was the next stop on Mark Chesnutt’s Excellent Elvis Adventure. He examined old recording equipment used by the Sun Records acts. Formerly Lansky’s clothing store, the Center also displays the full‑length mirror that Elvis used when trying on his latest hip duds back in the ’50s.
After a stroll past the W.C. Handy statue and B.B. King’s club, Mark headed for his big surprise. A visit to the Sam Phillips Recording Studio and the Sun Records Studio, haunts of the most famous talent‑discoverer and producer in rock ‘n’ roll and country music, Sam Phillips. Through Sam’s son, Knox, COUNTRY WEEKLY arranged to have the living legend personally greet Mark and take him through the studios.
As Sam entered the studio, Mark’s mouth dropped open in awe. Phillips put Mark at ease, giving him a hearty handshake and showing him the funky console that captured some of the greatest moments in country and rock history ‑‑ powerful and raw songs by such artists as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf.
Phillips took Mark on a personal play‑by‑play tour of both studios, something he has never done before for anyone. It was like a history lesson from the creator of the history. “I got this thing secondhand at a radio station in South Carolina,” Sam said, pointing to a primitive RCA console. “I went through and changed every old dry electrolytic capacitor in each of the pre‑amps. This was a big time for me. When I got through with it, I spit‑polished it.”
As Mark rotated the knobs on the machine, Sam added, “I had more fun and cut more hit records on that damn thing than I could ever cut on all the equipment they have today.”
Then Sam Phillips made Mark’s day, year, and life by praising his music: “As long as you get it going in the studio and psychologically get the artist and everyone into it, it’ll work ‑‑ just like when I was listening to Mark on that *Red Hot + Country* album. The whole album has got an unbelievable feel to it. Every track on it. There’s not a throwaway on the entire album, and it’s totally the feel.”
Mark beamed and shyly played down the compliment by fiddling with the knobs. Phillips put his hand on Mark’s shoulder and said, “I tell you, Mark, we’re going to make it, boy.”
Moving from the present Phillips Studio on Madison Avenue to the famed Sun Records Studio a block away on Union, Sam took Mark by the arm and told him: “Mark, this is a tour that nobody gets. This I built with my own damn hands.” Pointing to the vintage sound‑absorbing ceiling tiles, he added, “I laid all these tiles myself. That’s where I got that sound.”
Sam pointed to a photo of him and Elvis, telling Mark, tongue in cheek: “Here’s a picture of me teaching Elvis how to play the guitar. I believe I’m better looking than Elvis in this picture.”
Then Phillips nodded toward one of the most historic photos in the history of music ‑‑ Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash ‑‑ his Sun Records stars, all jamming together. “Anybody as young as Mark Chesnutt, he ain’t heard about them yet.”
Sam concluded by saying it all: “This is the cradle, the manger, the stable, the whole damn thing of rock ‘n’ roll.”
During a final handshake, Sam told the country singer to return to Memphis and they’d hit Beale Street for a night of fun.
Later, while munching down on barbecue ribs at the Rendezvous Restaurant, Mark, who recorded part of his latest album at Kiva Studios in Memphis, thanked COUNTRY WEEKLY for making one of his dreams come true. “This has been one of the most unbelievable days in my life. To meet Sam Phillips and for him to take me through those studios, show me around and tell me how he did it … I’ll never forget it.”
photos by Slick Lawson