Morinville – Seventeen Elvis tribute artists (ETA) are set to gather at the Busby Sports Grounds later this month for the fourth annual Blue Suede Music Festival, an event that began on an acreage four years ago to provide a local performer an audience to hone his skills on.
“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” said festival organizer Trudy Taphorn. “It’s kind of gone viral. We had to move it off our acreage because it got too big. There were 530 people there last year that signed the guest book.”
Taphorn explained the inaugural event in 2009 was set up so that Morinville resident and Elvis tribute artist Rick Johnsen could have a venue to rehearse for an upcoming Elvis competition in Penticton, British Columbia. At the event, Taphorn met an Edmonton performer and the two decided to do a second event. More than 100 people showed up to the second festival. “We didn’t know half of them,” she said of those who attended the 2010 event. “They just saw some signs that said Elvis and they came. We decided the next day to go big or go home.”
Two years later, the event has expanded to a three-day festival that will draw 17 performers, including Morinville’s Johnson. Although most are from Alberta and British Columbia, Taphorn said there are ETAs coming from New Brunswick and the United States. Then youngest performer is six, the oldest 65.
Unlike many Elvis gatherings, the Blue Suede Music Festival is not a competition. There is no jockeying to see who has the perfect Elvis curl or swirl. Rather, the annual event is a gathering or people who love the man and his music.
“He came from nothing,” Taphorn said of her admiration of the performer who died Aug. 16, 1977. “He was so poor growing up. Poorer than poor. But he never forgot where he came from. He was so generous. His charity work and the things he gave away and the things that he did was really something.”
Local Elvis connection
Morinville resident and heavy duty mechanic Rick Johnsen is one of the 17 set to croon and gyrate their way through the festival. For Johnsen, the love affair with Presley and his music began at the age of 10. Thirty-seven years later and the love is still there. “I was in the back seat of my dad’s car and we were driving along when That’s Alright, Momma came on the radio,” Johnsen recalls. “My legs started twitching and I asked my dad who it was and he told me it was Elvis.” Johnsen said he began listening to his father’s Elvis records when they got home and has never stopped. “I liked his style, his voice,” he said, adding he began imitating the performer around Grade 8, starting with a pair of coveralls died blue and decorated with studs. “I did it in Grade nine and a couple other grades before doing bars and talent nights.”
Like Taphorn, Johnsen is a big admirer of the man as much as he is an admirer of his music. “I just like his style, his voice, and the generosity of the guy,” he said. “The stories you hear, like giving this little girl in a wheelchair an expensive ring and not even thinking twice about it.”
Johnsen tries to bring some of that spirit to his performances, lavishing audience members with Elvis’ trademark silk scarves, and giving 110 per cent of himself in each performance. Johnsen was recently the highlight of the Street Performers Festival held at the Morinville Farmers’ Market in late July, pulling more than one encore.
But he’s humble about it all, including having been the original act for a festival that is on the verge of becoming something big. “I think it’s awesome,” he said. “I never envisioned it would have transpired to be as big as it has gotten. It was just to get over some stage fright and some fears in front of an audience. The next thing you know she’s up to her ears in Elvis.”
Johnsen is appreciative of the festival through which he has had the opportunity to meet and work with other ETAs, people he has been able to learn from and share ideas with.
The event takes place Aug. 25 and 26. Admission is a minimum $5 donation and a food bank donation. Monies collected will be used to cover performers’ travel expenses. For more information on the Blue Suede Music Festival visit bluesuedemusicfestival.com
Above: Elvis tribute artist Rick Johnsen performs at a recent Morinville event. The local King look alike will join 16 other Elvis tribute artists in Busby later this month. – Stephen Dafoe Photo