Two Days in Tupelo

Tuesday, June 9, 2009
By Louis Magnifico

June 1, 2009 started like any other Monday morning at the office until my wife surprised me with an email entitled “I’m taking you!”  Opening the email, I found that she had sent me a link to the annual Tupelo Elvis Festival that weekend in Tupelo, MS – the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

I expected the event to be a fun time – after all, I am an avid Elvis fan.  But I got more than I bargained for in Tupelo… and not just the Elvis Festival.  Tupelo turned out to be a perfect weekend getaway for us and one to which we will certainly return.

Vernon Presley built this house for $180 borrowed dollars.

Vernon Presley built this house for $180 borrowed dollars.

We loaded up Char’s RAV 4 with just the basics for quick trip and headed out on Highway 78 from Memphis, arriving in Tupelo to a sunny and pleasant 80 degree day.  We grabbed lunch, checked into the hotel, and took off for our first stop:  the birth home of Elvis Presley.

The Elvis Presley Birthplace campus includes the home in which Elvis was born, the church where Elvis attended as a child, a chapel, a memorial garden, a museum, and of course… a gift shop.

The home itself is a two room shotgun shack (and I don’t mean two bedrooms, I mean two rooms – a kitchen and a bedroom).  Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley, borrowed $180 and built the shack himself.  Unlike the lengthy tour of the Graceland mansion in Memphis, the tour here can last only about 1 minute (that’s about all the spill you get from the tour guide who then sits down and lets you remain in the house as long as you want to look at artifacts from yesteryear).  There is an innocence to this tour very different from the tour of Graceland.  Whereas at Graceland you can find out exactly how a rip in the pool table got there, at the Tupelo home your questions might remain a mystery.

Historic Marker at the Birthplace of Elvis Presley

Historic Marker at the Birthplace of Elvis Presley

Leaving the Birthplace, we headed back toward downtown Tupelo and passed an old fashioned shaved ice stand on the side of the road.  It was too cool looking not to stop by for a treat.  After a couple photo opportunities in front of the place, we browsed the massive menu of flavors offered for their icy delights.  They had flavors ranging from Grape to Mud, from Kiwi to Birthday Cake, from Pina Colada to Fudge.  And the best part… you can get a gigantic shaved ice for only $2.  Most urban zoos and amusement parks would be selling these tasty treats for $7 and it would only be half the size you get at this place!

Char swings on the front porch of the Presley abode.

Char swings on the front porch of the Presley abode.

We got 4 flavors (they were big enough to put 2 flavors in each cup).  We chose Kiwi, Green Apple, Grape, and Coconut.  The Coconut and Grape were excellent, the Kiwi was good but not strong enough, but the Green Apple was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.  After about half an hour of a brain freeze with Char laughing at me the whole time, we drive off to see the goings on at the Tupelo Elvis Festival 2009.

Louis poses like Elvis in front of the Sno Biz

Louis poses like Elvis in front of the Sno Biz

The patch of land known to the locals as FairPark housed a large outdoor concert venue where bands were scheduled to play throughout the weekend.  The Spunk Monkeys were the highlight for us.  They played music that Char and I loved growing up (and still do).  Excellent covers of “I Want You To Want Me” by Cheap Trick and “Detroit Rock City” by KISS were my highlights.  They ended their set with Elvis’ Suspicious Minds.  We look forward to seeing them play again in back in Memphis.

Not far from FairPark there was an outdoor stage and a street fair where Elvis Tribute Artists and others performed.  We’ll get to the tribute artists in a moment.  For now, let’s talk about one of those other bands…  One Mile South.

One Mile South performs at th Tupelo Elvis Festival

One Mile South performs at the Tupelo Elvis Festival

I generally like every genre of music except for country and rap.  But if these kids are the new sound of country then I’m buying a cowboy hat cause I’m sold on it!  They were very good and exceeded my expectations.  We heard them run through Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” at soundcheck (a song that our band, Vintage,  performs).  I turned to Char and said, “Wow – we do that song so much better.”  So I wasn’t expecting much from them.  When they started their set, I was hooked from the first strum.  I really hope these young guys from Oxford, MS  make a name for themselves among the next generation of country musicians.  They deserve it!

Louis Talks with an Elvis Fan from Italy

Louis Talks with an Elvis Fan from Italy. "Bela Lugosi Elvis" couldn't speak English but he could sing Elvis!

Now, let’s talk a little about Elvis Sightings.  After all, this is the Tupelo Elvis Festival.  Char and I saw many Elvi throughout the town.  Some were rather unusual.  One, in particular, was a man from Italy who came to Tupelo for the festival and spoke only Italian.  It’s hard to describe this guy’s bizarre appearance with words.  Sometime words diminish things.  So let’s get a gander at this man’s picture posted here with the caption “Louis Talks with an Elvis Fan from Italy.”  As I tried to speak with him, he sounded much like Bela Lugosi as he kept saying, “English broken.  English broken.  English broken.”  It wasn’t his appearance that struck us as much as his behavior.  He spent most of the Festival just sitting down smoking a cigarette just far enough away from any action going on to miss it all.  For example, when the Tupelo Hardware store performed a re-enactment of Elvis’ mother buying Elvis’ first guitar (more on this later), Bela Lugosi Elvis was sitting in a nearby storefront window with a guitar missing the action.  Everywhere we went around downtown Tupelo, Bela Lugosi Elvis was there, off to the side, doing nothing.  Odd indeed.

While Bela Lugosi Elvis was perhaps the most bizarre of the Elvi we met, he wasn’t the creepiest.  That honor goes to a man we called Leatherface Elvis.  Leatherface Elvis looked more like a wax model than a human being and unless he was showing off his Elvis moves, he moved like a slow walking late 1970s – early 1980s horror movie villian.

Leatherface Elvis

One of the many contestants in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. This Elvis did a great job as the '68 Comeback Special Elvis.

Even now, as I write this post, I am haunted by recurring visions of walking downtown at night, passing by a lonley alley and there he is… fog trailing across the light from a street lamp, eerie mist falling from the sky, and Leatherface Elvis standing there.  Then he is walking slowly toward me, carrying an acoustic guitar.  Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating is creepiness a little.  But then again…..

Another unusual Elvis was one I call Data Elvis.  This guy looks just like Data from Star Trek – The Next Generation.  He almost seemed to be a plant in the Elvis Tribute Artist competition…  someone who really isn’t in the contest at all but rather is spying on the other Elvi and reporting back to the Mothership on this unusual Earth tradition of paying homage to the King of Rock and Roll.  He almost seemed robotic… until we asked for a picture.  At which point, he put on a wide smile for the camera.

Data Elvis with Char

Data Elvis with Char

The street fair had a handful of vendors selling arts and a Bar B Que vendor selling pulled pork sandwiches.  We asked for a BBQ sandwich and we were saddened to find that they were just closing up their booth.  But the man running it told us that they represent a nice BBQ restaurant down the street.  He invited us to dine at his establishment.  We walked the two or three blocks downtown to get to his place to learn that they were closed for a private party that evening.  But like most everyone we met in Tupelo, the nice people tried to accommodate us anyway.  They ultimately made us a to-go order and we took the food back to the tables in front of the Lyric Theater to have our dinner.

Saturday morning started with an Elvis Parade.  Now before I begin this narrative, let me state that the parade, like the whole weekend, was a blast.  We LOVED our time in Tupelo.  Now, that said…. the parade was more or less a bunch of locals driving around in their cars.  I expected to see giant floats traveling through Main Street with singing Elvi.  I expected large floating balloons in the shape of Elvis’ head.  I expected floats carrying homemade tributes to Elvis.  Instead, I got some locals driving old cars around.  But the real sightseeing at the parade was the people there to watch it.  Elvi, Elvi everywhere.

Char and some Elvi

Char and some Elvi

Louis and some Elvi

Louis and some Elvi

Perhaps they didn't want to be seen.

Perhaps they didn't want to be seen.

The parade watchers were not just people in Elvis outfits.  Some of the locals came out in full camo. And when I say full camo, I mean full.  Camo socks, camo pants, camo shirts, camo hats, probably camo… well, nevermind.  I don’t want to think about that.  But speaking of locals, we did meet some really great locals at the parade who told us about some outstanding spots to visit while in town. One guy spent a great deal of time with us, letting us know the best places for food, shopping, etc.  He recommended a place called “The Stables” for the best burger in town.  He wasn’t kidding.  These large burgers were gourmet!  Next time we visit Tupelo, we’re heading back there… and Char and I are splitting a burger!  The onion rings were fantastic as well.  Nice, locals kind of a pub with a relaxing alley patio to boot.

He also told us about a unique shopping center known as “The Village Green.”  This place turned out to be a great place for buying all kinds of arts, crafts, books, etc.  It even had a wireless internet cafe in the back.  We picked up some fudge after sampling every kind they had and bought some colas.  Char scored an artsy necklace and earring set and I got an Elvis book I hadn’t seen before.

Speaking of artsy places, there was a great store on Main Street called “The Main Attraction.”  We spent some time in there looking at the odds and ends, talking with the owner, and buying a Coke and a Dr. Pepper in a bottle.

DJ Fontana speaks with the band's drummer

DJ Fontana speaks with the band's drummer

Ok – let’s move on the the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest.  The competition showcased a variety of Elvi from the 50s to the 70s looks.  Our favorite was a guy named Justin Shandor who finished third place overall.  He looked like Elvis even off stage and out of costume.  He was a great artist and a very nice guy.  We spent some time talking with him and learned that he is an accomplished pianist and solo vocalist.

Bill Cherry won the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest

Bill Cherry won the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest

Most of the Elvi we saw were very good (granted, we didn’t see Round 1 of the competition).  Elvis’ original drummer, DJ Fontana, was on hand to help with the show as well.  The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist event was actually more fun than I anticipated and I look forward not only to going back to see this event in Tupelo next year but also plan on seeing the finals of the competition when it hits Memphis during Elvis Week 2009.  Bill Cherry won the Tupelo contest and will be performing in the Memphis finals.

Char with Justin Shandor

Char with Justin Shandor

There was one Elvis tribute artist I want to talk about for a moment… In Round 2 of the competition, he decided to perform “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”  He did the version where Elvis forgets the words and starts laughing and can’t finish the song.  But in his “tribute,” he forgot the forgotten words.  He stood there like a deer in the headlights as the band played on behind him.  He started pacing back and forth across the stage.  It was uncomfortable watching him bomb so poorly.  Wait a minute….. the more I think about it, maybe he should have won!  Hmmmm – if they had an Ultimate 1976-1977 Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, maybe this guy would be authentic.  But when the show is going for the Elvis that gave us “Mystery Train,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” this guy didn’t make it.

Young Elvis in Concert

Young Elvis in Concert

There was also no shortage of young Elvi around Tupelo.  One in particular, had all the right moves.  As you can see in the picture to the right, this little Elvis could sing, dance, and hold a mic like a 50s rock star.  He really is a natural!  The Tupelo Hardware Store put on a re-enactment of Elvis getting his first guitar (it was originally purchased for Elvis at the Tupelo Hardware Store).  This kid played the part of young Elvis.  Another festivity was a re-enactment of the marriage of Elvis’ parents at the actual location.

Finally, there was an Elvis painting about 20 feet tall on the side of a building that made for some great photo ops.  It was our last stop in Tupelo before hitting Highway 78 back toward Memphis.  Seeing the painting made me wonder why local artists in Memphis haven’t posted their art all over the sides of buildings in downtown Memphis.  Tupelo seems to relish being the birthplace of Elvis Presley more than Memphis seems to relish being the home of Elvis Presley and the birthplace of Rock and Roll.  All in all, the event was better than we expected – and so was the city of Tupelo!  We can’t wait to go back next year…. and we’ll be sure to blog again when we do!

Until next time...

Until next time...

My OCD kicked in when I saw the sign was crooked.

My OCD kicked in when I saw the sign was crooked.

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