"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)






Elvis and the South: Love me tender The King was our prophet; our states are Graceland on a grand scale


We're running from Ivan, chased by bruised skies and the staccato thud of fat raindrops. Memphis looks awfully damn good as a refuge. Divinity or chance (or, more likely, bad map-reading) lands us on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Photographer Jim Stawniak says, "Graceland." Graceland. Elvis. Sounds good. This is a road trip about the South, after all.

People, their thoughts, icons, passions. What they revere, despise. Their trajectory through the centuries and decades to circa now. Elvis is as good a place to start as any. And who knows? He may be the guiding muse on this trip. "Lead me, Mr. Presley," I think. "Oh, he's around here all right," says a perfectly serious Regina Dorsey, late of Atlanta. She's been pushed around the South by the economic winds, finally landing "I'm not getting rich but it's interesting" work at the cash register of the Chrome Grille at Graceland. "No one is in the kitchen, and all of sudden, the water tap turns on. Or the stove. Things aren't where we leave them. It happens all the time. He's here."

"POVERTY TO RICHES," says Judy Schumpert, who, along with Rhonda Lamp, runs the Elvis gift shop in Tupelo (above).

For all of the glamour that was Elvis, the Memphis street that totes his name is hardly a fitting tribute. Empty used car dealerships with crooked signs, a string of seedy hotels all trying to leech a bit of Elvis into their names. Storefront after storefront with broken windows like skulls' vacant eye sockets. Graceland.

This is America's shrine to the common people. Folks cry at the graves of Elvis and his kin; they reverently touch his images. Some write their names on the bricks that anchor Graceland's iron gates, hoping the Saint in Gold Lame will notice.

We scurry southeast to Tupelo, Miss. The shotgun shack where Elvis Aaron Presley entered this astral plane is nicely preserved, a Medina to the Mecca in Memphis. Recalling a model I'd spied at Graceland, I notice there's one thing missing -- the outhouse. That's the South. We brag about our heritage but don't want people to see the crap.

For a minute, I'm so focused on trying to absorb Elvis' starting point, I miss what surrounds the holy ground. They've Disney-ized his birthplace. No tasteful sanctuary where pilgrims can light rock 'n' roll votive candles. The outdoor commode has transformed into a grandly tacky souvenir shop. Seven bucks to look at trinkets from Elvis' early years.

Thirty more for a life-size cardboard cutout of the King. Don't be cynical. Maybe all this is fitting. I think about Graceland again as I hang out in Tupelo, sizing up the hurricane's latest frenzied wobble to the east, no west, no east again. Ivan must have watched old Elvis flicks.

Elvis is the South's story. Humble origins, truck driving aspirations. Hugging that old-time religion so hard his arms must have ached. "He loved his origins, was always loyal," smiles Scarlett Sullivan, who, with husband Mike, have fled their Mobile, Ala., home. Like scores of others, they measure their retreat from Ivan by stops at, as she says, "the places I've always wanted to visit most."

Like the South, Elvis needed cultivation to blossom. Enter a consummate hustler, ex-Tampa dog catcher Col. Tom Parker, who channeled Elvis' explosive, unsophisticated energy -- much as like beloved demagogues, from Huey Long to George Wallace to Strom Thurmond. The wealth rolled in. Elvis shot up as more than a star -- the first salvo in the youth revolution. The New South's cheap land and cheap labor created an energy burst with shock waves as seismic, if not as melodic, as Elvis'. Graceland was Elvis' statement to the world on his roots.

The mansion's decor is crass. Puke green shag carpets, a "Jungle Room" and a "TV Room" that assault the senses. It's a lot like our gleaming cities. A lot of money went into fixing things up, but the impact is nauseating. There's another part of Graceland, a small meadow where he kept horses. It's less pretentious, it has charm. That, too, is what the South is about. Small towns, loyalty, tightly woven lives, people with deep roots in the land. "Elvis was America's dream," beams a pouffy-hairdooed Judy Schumpert, who runs the gift shop at Elvis' Tupelo birthplace. "He was all about poverty to riches and fame. He stayed the same person, he really did, and he never forgot where he came from."

Senior Editor John Sugg and photographer Jim Stawniak are somewhere in Dixie -- we're not sure quite where.

(Spotlight/Article, Source: Creative Loafing, 23 Sep 2004)









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Elvis Odd Spot (updated 22 Sep 2004)