Sunday, December 3

‘This is my escape’: scenes from the Elvis festival that takes over a small town | music festivals

Sheryl Scharkie knows she isn’t the typical Elvis tribute artist.

“Female Elvis tribute artists aren’t necessarily well-received,” she tells Guardian Australia. In fact she’s one of only two in the country. “Ten years ago, it was basically unheard of. It took a while for people to get used to me.”

“The guys who hold the festivals and that, they don’t really know what to do with me. They don’t know if I can perform by myself or if I should just be an opener. I mean, I do three or four-hour shows,” she says, with the roll of an eye. “The other thing is that I can sing most of the boys out of the park.”

She may be different, but Scharkie is doing just fine. Under her stage name of “ShElvis”, she was recently inducted into the International Elvis Tribute Artist Hall of Fame, and has twice placed in the top 10 of Elvis tribute artist competitions in Surfers Paradise. Today, though, she is playing outside a cafe, serenading the small but passionate legion of fans who follow her around Australia. Scharkie fields audience requests to sing classics like Hound Dog and He Touched Me, stopping after the set to take selfies and sign CDs.

A selection of entrants who participated in the Miss Priscilla contest.

This is just one of 10 gigs she’ll play across five days for the Parkes Elvis festival, which for four days each year triples the population of a small regional town in central-west New South Wales.

Parkes is a hallowed annual event for Elvis tribute artists (or ETAs, as they refer to themselves; many consider the term “impersonator” offensive, as it doesn’t capture the respect with which they try to embody the King). Australia doesn’t have a full Elvis circuit like the US, where ETAs can make a living off touring year-round. We have the Blue Mountains Elvis festival, a smaller wintertime affair, and in Coolangatta, there is a 50s festival called Cooly Rocks On, which the Elvii are slowly starting to infiltrate. But “Parkes is always going to be number one” Scharkie says. 2022 is her ninth year of her at the event.

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Sheryl 'Shelvis' Scharkie

The Parkes Elvis festival attracts around 25,000 visitors annually; accommodation in Parkes, along with the neighboring towns of Forbes and Orange, books out months in advance. So too do tickets for the Elvis Express, a train that departs Sydney’s Central station packed with hundreds of costumed fans and a handful of tribute artists, who perform in the aisles of swaying carriages throughout the seven-hour journey. Many travel circuit routes to Sydney instead of going direct to Parkes, just to be part of the ride.

An unnamed Elvis on the Elvis Express.

In Parkes, just about every venue in town gets into the spirit. Pubs, RSLs, bowling clubs and street corners are taken over by performers doing their best baritone. The local Vinnies dresses up its second-hand frames by stuffing them with photos of Elvis, and the bakery cinnamon dusts his image of him onto the top of custard tarts. The official program includes a main stage with live music from 9am-10pm daily, plus markets where you can pick up a chip-on-a-stick or a pamphlet for in-home aged care.

The festival also facilitates events like the Miss Priscilla pageant, where local brunettes stroll the stage at the Services Club to be judged on who best resembles Presley’s wife; and the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition, where tribute artists face off for the opportunity to progress to a global competition in Memphis. Unofficial events include Elvis karaoke, Elvis rugby and Elvis trivia.

Emilio the 22 year old Elvis tribute artist and local Rafa Thomson.

It is a festival beloved by all who experience it, but the weekend really belongs to the tribute artists. And after a Covid-enforced hiatus last year, they are thrilled to have Parkes back. “We’ve all been dying for this,” Scharkie says.

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For tribute artist Lenard Connolly, the return of Parkes has brought particular relief. When he’s not singing The King, Connolly is a frontline healthcare worker. “This is my escape,” he says.

Every tribute artist has their own origin story – the tale of how they discovered Elvis and eventually decided to zip up a jumpsuit of their own. For Wiradjuri, Yuin and Ngunnawal man Connolly, it was hearing Presley on his parent’s radio.

Tribute artist Lenard Connolly on the Elvis Express

“I just thought, who’s this guy? I really liked the sound of his voice from him. Soon I was singing Elvis before I went to school. Just a little Aboriginal kid shaking his leg,” he says.

But the road to becoming a professional tribute artist requires commitment. A custom-made Elvis suit – you can’t buy off the rack if you want it to fit properly – can cost upwards of $3,000. You’ll have to grow your sideburns and dye them black, or stick hair on where the real thing is missing. You’ll pay slavish attention to detail, ensuring even the rings you wear match the Elvis era you are replicating. Years are spent perfecting not just the vocals but the gyration of hips, the way Presley moved his eyebrows, the looks he’d throw the crowd.

Elvis tribute artists Al Gersbech

“You’ve got to love him,” tribute artist Paul Fenech, the winner of this year’s Ultimate Elvis Competition, tells me. “You’ve got to have been watching him as you grew up. You’ve got to watch all the movies or put on a concert of his every night before you go out. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not really in it for the right reason. And I don’t think you will ever, ever grasp the real feel of Elvis.”

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Among tribute artists, the reverence for Elvis is real. “I believe he’s one of the most important human beings ever. Other than Jesus Christ,” Connolly says.

While Connolly describes himself as “older than Elvis ever was” – a descriptor that could apply to most ETAs – there are a few at the other end of the age spectrum. One is Penrith’s Emilio Prince, a fast-rising 22-year-old tribute artist who wants to bring The King to people his age.

An Elvis tribute artist at Pioneer Oval ahead of the annual Elvis rugby union match.

“I want to start inviting the younger people in because the older generation ain’t gonna stay around forever,” he says. “And once they go out, we’re going to be out of jobs because there won’t be an audience to watch us. So festivals like this make it so much easier, because so many young people come with their families.”

Prince takes his work seriously. Pre-Covid he was playing around six shows a month; under the guidance of a manager, he hopes to soon make this his full-time career. He knows he has a lot to learn from those who came before him.

“There’s no jealousy… it’s all about supporting each other,” he says. “They teach me their tricks. They’ve been doing it for over 40 years so obviously you’re going to take that advice and you’re going to cherish it.”

For tribute artists, it’s not just a community they are part of – but something greater.

“We call it the Elvis world,” Connolly says. “And we live in it.”

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