NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Shania Twain Heads to Las Vegas: Is it the Promised Land or the Elephants’ Graveyard?

Sin City Is Becoming the Repository of Superstar Music Careers

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The news this week that retired country superstar Shania Twain is officially coming out of retirement was not totally unexpected. Reports have been circulating for years that she’s been recording, and her recent very frank autobiography was a signal that she is coming back in a big way.

What was a bit unexpected was the news that she has picked Las Vegas to be the site for her re-emergence. She could still command premiere prices at any venue in the world. There is — save Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift — no female country artist with her ability to sell tickets and to draw audiences.

But Shania is going to spell Celine Dion during her vacations from Caesars Palace. There is ample precedent for that. Country music has a long history with Las Vegas. Witness Garth Brooks’ current successful run at the Wynn. Steve Wynn, who booked Garth into his hotel, has a long history of bringing country music to Vegas, going back to the days when he ran the Golden Nugget and booked the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell.

In country music history, Hank Williams gave Vegas one try and bombed. He played the Last Frontier Casino (only the second casino built on the Strip), and he was drunk and was not what the gamblers expected in the way of high-class entertainment.

But Elvis Presley went to Vegas and revolutionized pop and country music there and drew audiences in unprecedented numbers. Elvis’ Vegas runs from 1969 to 1976 may have ultimately killed him. Las Vegas certainly resurrected his career but may have led to a downspin in his lifestyle with his new tinfoil on the windows — shutting out the world — syndrome and the endless pills and the out-of-control bodyguards and the parades of young girls. When Elvis first opened in Vegas in 1969, he was derided as a sellout. Now everyone — from Elton John to Eagles to Paul McCartney — plays the Strip.

With Shania’s move, it’s confirmed that — at least for artists of her stature and status — Oprah’s OWN network and a Las Vegas room are the safest and most lucrative avenues for the future.

Vegas in many ways is wonderful for artists as well as fans. It’s safe. It’s convenient. The artist tours in one spot for weeks on end and the audience comes to them. As with Elvis, they need never leave the hotel. Everything is brought to them. The money is good.

For a music fan — who has the money — it’s a great way to see a favorite artist. You’re staying in the hotel. You go down to the showroom for showtime, to your reserved seat — with a comped drink or two first.

Unlike at a concert in the real world, you don’t have to find a parking garage that isn’t already full, pay your $50 to park, walk several blocks in the stifling heat past loitering thugs and threatening panhandlers, struggle with the surging crowds and thread your way through the Barney Fife-security forces at the gates, try to find your seats, pay 10 or 12 bucks for a cup of beer after a long wait in line, try to ignore the yahoos around you who will emit loud whistles and cries for “Whipping Post!” throughout the night and will yell “Hell, yeah!” in your ear after every song.

So, at a certain point in your life, a Vegas show begins to make sense. It’s an effortless and pleasant (expensive? so what?) way to go to a musical event. The show is actually a pleasure. The show is the show. It’s what you wanted. After the concert, leaving the venue is not a stampede. You don’t have to hike several blocks back to your car past the thugs and panhandlers and wait for a damn long time to get out of the parking garage because no one will let your car pull into the damn exit line.

And, after the show, you have choices. Go up to your room and order room service. Or go to one of the many bars or restaurants in the hotel. And there are some good ones. Vegas has figured that out very well. I’ve seen the Garth Brooks Vegas show twice and greatly enjoyed it. In that relatively small room, it’s an intimate experience you would never find with Garth in an arena. Brooks opens up in ways you may not expect and presents a warm and expressive and sometimes revealing evening.

If — like me — you read as a child numerous adventure stories set in the African jungles and savannahs, then you know all about the elephants’ graveyard. That was the hallowed spot where majestic old elephants would make their way to die once the feeling of death came upon them. That’s common to animals. I’ve seen it in my dogs and cats. When they sense they are dying, they go off in private to gracefully fade away in peace and privacy.

For the mighty elephants, the Elephants’ Graveyard was the mythical secret death site. Great white hunters went off in search of the fabled Elephants’ Graveyard, where there would be fortunes in ivory.

Does ivory today equal musical copyrights and recordings? Is Vegas your place of rebirth as an artist or your final (metaphorical) resting place? Does artistic creativity not happen in Vegas, much less stay in Vegas? Is music ultimately the property of the people with the Escalades and the black Amex cards and the prime seats for the primo Vegas shows?