Going to Graceland: A Visit to Elvis Country

Apologies for the long absence from posting. For the past month I’ve been consumed with the launch of my new book, Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show. My mini-book tour culminated last week with a trip to Memphis for the tail end of Elvis Week, the annual fan festival marking the anniversary of the King’s death, on August 16, 1977. 

It was my third visit to Graceland, and there have been changes. The complex of gift shops, restaurants, exhibits and a giant soundstage, directly across the street from Elvis’s Graceland mansion, was reconfigured a couple of years ago, and the place seems more mercenary and insular than ever. At least half of the attractions (Presley Cycles, Hollywood Backlot, Elvis’s Tupelo Exhibit, etc.)  are now “behind the wall” — that is, accessible only to visitors who pay for a complete tour package. The restricted area includes several of the gift shops as well; you even have to pay for the privilege of shopping!

Outside authors are not exactly welcomed at Graceland, so my book had little presence there — despite the fact that it celebrates the very event (the 50th anniversary of Elvis’s 1969 Las Vegas comeback show) that was the centerpiece of this year’s festival. I didn’t take it personally. The few books for sale in the gift shops are mainly photo albums for fans, or estate-approved books written by Elvis insiders, like Priscilla Presley’s memoir. (Nothing goes on sale at Graceland that the Elvis estate isn’t making money from.) 

So I experienced the event mainly as a fan, not a book promoter. The week’s highlight was a reunion concert featuring most of the surviving members of Elvis’s ’69 band and back-up groups.  Musically and technically, the show was a knockout: Elvis himself singing on a giant screen (not from 1969, but from the 1970 concert film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is), with live accompaniment from the onstage musicians, both old and new. A panel the following morning — featuring Elvis great lead guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt and several others — was well produced and deftly moderated by DJ and Elvis Week regular Tom Brown. 

The crowd at Elvis Week is intriguing. There are plenty of weathered Elvis fans from across the South and the country, but also a surprising number of young people, families, twentysomething couples who look like their next stop is an Elvis wedding chapel in Vegas. Lots of foreigners too; British, Australian and German accents abound. The crowd is diverse in almost every way but race: visitors to Elvis Week are virtually 100% white. 

Who are these people who flock every year to bask in the king’s memory? Sitting next to me at the reunion concert was an Elvis impersonator, a regular performer in “Elvis Tribute Artist” contests who told me he was taking this year off to study up and improve his act. At another event, I met a pleasant seventyish woman from northern England, part of a group that organizes an annual Elvis festival in Great Yarmouth, billed as the largest weeklong Elvis festival outside of Memphis. While standing in a two-hour line for the meet-and-greet with Burton, Tutt and the other Elvis musicians who performed (as I said, authors get no special privileges here), I had a long and lively talk with Joanne, a crusty Long Islander who was making her 55th visit to Memphis. (Along with Elvis Week, there’s also the annual birthday celebration in January.)

Elvis fans are true believers, but they can get feisty. Joanne refuses to go see any of “the nitwits” — as she derisively calls the Elvis impersonators who take up all too much programming time during Elvis Week. Last year, when Graceland changed its admission policy and began restricting access to the exhibits and shops, the fans rebelled. The annual candlelight vigil (a solemn march up the hill to Graceland, on the eve of the death anniversary) was over by 10:30 p.m. that year, one of the vigil organizers told me — the smallest crowd in memory.  This year, after the admission policy was relaxed a bit, the fans came back. The vigil didn’t end until 3 a.m. 

It has now been 42 years since Elvis’s death — 42 years after his birth — and the Elvis cult seems in no danger of dying out. I have no great theories as to why. Partly it’s the music — “Don’t Be Cruel” and “That’s All Right, Mama” will never grow old. Partly it’s the almost mythic life story and career trajectory of this kid from Tupelo who changed the music and the culture. But a big part of it, I suspect, is simply the chance to share an obsession with a community of fellow obsessives from all over the country and the world, people with whom they may have nothing else in common. For a little while at least, I was proud to share it with them. 

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