The spangled, white polyester jumpsuit will be with us always. It is not biodegradable, for one thing. However, as a longtime groupie, I also notice that interpretations of Elvis Presley are growing more subtle and complex, along with the demographic makeup of his fans, who traditionally skew white and well into AARP membership. Forty-five years after his tabloid death, the entertainer is enjoying a comeback that promises to liberate him from black velvet and restore his legacy as a revolutionary. The soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis played at Coachella, prompting sleek, young scenesters to google his name for the first time, to the delight of their grandparents.
I feel the tremors of an oncoming youth-quake at the 24th Annual Elvis Festival in the King’s hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, where 18 spaniel-eyed performers vie for the title of Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist. (Hard-won pro tip: Do not call them “impersonators.” They don’t like that.) Of course, there is some showboating: hips pumping like pistons, arms windmilling in karate chops. If this spectacle is any indication, though, Elvis Country is becoming something unexpected: a little more understated and, yes, tasteful.
“I have gotten away from the white jumpsuit,” says the winner, Brooke Wright, a Nashville-based troubadour who sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” ending it with scales that showed off his operatic range. “I try not to overdo it and cross some line, focusing instead on vocal authenticity.” He performs in a snug indigo suit and afterward takes off his black cockscomb of a wig to reveal auburn hair.
Nearby at a downtown park, speakers blast “Hound Dog.” Tupelo loves its native son. A group of children with Down syndrome, out on a field trip, all start to dance, some of them rocking back and forth in wheelchairs with big smiles.
“Elvis is magic,” says Wright, who has lately observed kids in the crowd at his shows. “Once you let him in, he won’t let you go.”
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Southbound.