Tupelo Celebrates Its Most Famous Export with Its Annual Elvis Festival

Music Features Tupelo Elvis Festival
Tupelo Celebrates Its Most Famous Export with Its Annual Elvis Festival

Nearly everyone you talk to in Tupelo, Mississippi has a story of reinvention. Stephanie Hall’s boutique was open for a mere three months before the pandemic forced its closure. Desperate for a way to earn some extra income for her small family during the pandemic, she offered to make charcuterie spreads for her friends. That blossomed into the brick and mortar shop CharCutie that does a brisk business in both dine-in and take home boards. Jeri Carter was a kindergarten teacher who pivoted from her former side hustle making wine into making mead, the oldest known alcoholic drink, winning awards and fans along the way. She and her husband soon opened Queen’s Rewards Meadery, the first ever such business in her home state.

These tales of transformation are fitting for a town best known for being the birthplace of one of music’s greatest shapeshifters. Native son Elvis Presley took his love of gospel, blues and country and, alongside plenty of other musicians and songwriters, synthesized what became rock ‘n’ roll. The journey to his death in 1977 is marked by dramatic shifts in sound and style. The slick pompadour and crisp blazers giving way to tight leather outfits and rhinestone-crusted jumpsuits. The hooked up skiffle of “That’s All Right” slowly morphing into the bombast of “The Impossible Dream.”

Visitors to Tupelo aren’t generally there to experience their own metamorphosis but simply to bear witness and pay homage to the place where one began. The city has, naturally, risen to meet the demand. To paraphrase Mojo Nixon, in the seat of Lee County, Mississippi, Elvis is everywhere. Spend a day driving around the city, and you can easily hit all the landmarks of the King’s early years: his favorite swimming hole, the general store where he bought his first guitar, the park where he staged a homecoming concert in 1956, his favorite burger joint (Johnnie’s Drive-In). 

The centerpiece is the museum that features Elvis’s childhood home and the church where he attended services as a youngster. Both are situated on the 15-acre Elvis Presley Park (on Elvis Presley Way, natch), a reverent and serene plaza where volunteers and music lovers have helped preserve these decades-old buildings and surrounded them with fountains, statues and, on the ground encircling the two-room home where Elvis lived as a young one, a timeline of the storied life of the artist and his family. The house itself isn’t much to look at on the inside, even with its era-appropriate furnishings and appliances. It does however serve as a stark contrast to the Memphis manse where Elvis breathed his last. 

More impressive is the Assembly of God Church, the lovingly preserved house of worship that was moved to the grounds of the museum in 2008. To give visitors a taste of what the experience of being there would have been like for the young Elvis, they’ve installed a trio of screens that drop down from the ceiling, onto which they project a filmed reenactment of a typical Sunday service. It’s a charming, if slightly stilted, recreation that becomes more impactful when watching it surrounded by serious fans of the King. For them, this is as close as they’ll get to touching the hem of his garments. 

Tupelo Elvis Festival

For the hundreds of folks who descended upon Tupelo during the few days I was there, getting as close as possible to the experience of basking in the glow of rock ‘n’ roll royalty was the goal of their visit. Since 1998, the city has hosted the Tupelo Elvis Festival, a celebration of their native son and a competition of Elvis impersonators vying for the chance to win a spot in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis. As with most things concerning the late rock ‘n’ roller, the tournament is serious business for these performers. Some spend thousands of dollars on the proper clothing and fake sideburns and makeup to approximate the look of Elvis as closely as possible—not to mention the expense of flying around the country to participate in contests like these. 

The expense, says Victor Trevino, Jr., the 2022 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist World Champion, is entirely with it. “I’m not obsessed with Elvis. I don’t have a shrine in my house. But he’s a big influence in my life. I love making an 80-year-old woman feel like she’s 21 again. If I make someone’s night, then I feel like I’m doing my job.” To see how the people in the Cadence Bank Arena, the home of the competition in Tupelo, responded to Trevino, making the night of Elvis fans doesn’t take much. When he wasn’t ripping through a well-chosen selection of songs, he was bestowing kiss after kiss to a small mob of female audience members. 

And what can come out of winning the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest is more fuel for what is still a thriving industry of impersonators. The 2013 winner of the competition, Dean Z, has an epic tribute show that he performs regularly in Branson, Missouri and takes on the road to far flung locales like Brazil. Many of the winners are part of the Legends In Concert circuit where they perform alongside tributes to such artists as Freddie Mercury and Taylor Swift. If they came to the title by winning the preliminary in Tupelo, they also have a standing invitation to come back during Elvis week to perform or just hang out on the main drag of downtown, shaking hands and taking selfies with fans. 

For casual listeners like myself, the experience of just three days in Tupelo during Elvis Week borders on overload. The last night was a huge concert featuring the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra backing up a batch of tribute artists who underwent several costume changes and recreated moments from Elvis’ ’68 comeback special, his Vegas residency and beyond. It was capped off by the orchestra backing up a live recording of Elvis himself—a cute trick but one that felt a little too close to the non-stop stream of albums featuring recordings of long dead artists that have been overdubbed by the London Philharmonic. 

A welcome respite are the popular Elvis Festival After Parties, where a gaggle of tribute artists and locals, accompanied by a crack team of musicians, wear their street clothes and play a bunch of favorite rock and country tunes while an adoring crowd partakes of the buffet of burgers, chicken strips and mac and cheese. It’s as loose as can be with flubbed lyrics and awkward moments galore. But it’s also a great way for these talented folks to let off some steam during an otherwise pressure-filled competition. 

As over-Elvised as I got during my short journey to Tupelo, I couldn’t help but be charmed by how much the town and the community rise to the occasion of celebrating their most famous export. Of course, there were the occasional naysayers like the one shopkeeper who remembers when the event was big enough to bring artists like Jerry Lee Lewis to town and laments how it has shrunk in recent years. The rest seemed more than happy to adjust their menus to Elvis-themed fare and their in-house soundtrack to a playlist of hip-swiveling tunes from the ’50s and ’60s. And if they’re able to tell their own stories along the way—surely a tale of rags to riches glory or necessary evolution—all the better. 

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