Yes, but is it an arts festival ….?

Parkes, 8-12 January, 2014. This town was once known only for  wheat, sheep, gold, and The Big Dish.  Last weekend, however, it was all about big wigs, big skirts, big cars and big blokes in sequinned jumpsuits trying to look like Elvis! I watched them pass from under a tree in Clarinda Street, not far from the big bronze of Clarinda’s husband, Big Henry, for whom this town was named.

Elvis Revival, Cooke Park, Parkes, January 2014.

Elvis Revival, Cooke Park, Parkes, January 2014.

I felt as though I was shrinking back into the past in Parkes that day. I became twelve-years-old again, a shy, pubescent country kid in my best going-to-town frock, a big full 1960s skirt to just below my knees, made by my mum on her Singer sewing machine. In those days, we’d drive to Parkes once a week for all the things we couldn’t buy in the village store or produce for ourselves on the farm. No air conditioning then so, in summer, we’d wind the car windows right down and try to find a shady place to park. Did we have a car radio? Can’t remember, but if we did, it would’ve been stuck on the ABC. We were that kind of family. Which meant that, as a country kid, I rarely heard Elvis in the ’50s or early ’60s, or even the early Beatles or Rolling Stones. Or not until I went away to boarding school.

And yet there I was, a mature adult, perspiring under a tree near Sir Henry’s big bronze, while dozens of Elvises (or Elvii, as they’re called in Parkes) paraded down Clarinda’s street as if they owned it. And not just Elvii, but Miss Priscillas too, and all those hillbillies. Hundreds of them. Because the theme for this year’s Elvis Revival was Kissin’ Cousins, that silly movie he made in 1964, when my mum was still making my dresses. Parkes Library was screening the film for free that day, and Cynthia Pepper was in town too, the woman who played the cutesie blonde Private First Class Midge Riley in Kissin’ Cousins. She was this Festival’s unlikely guest-of-honour. All very, very retro-weird!

But perhaps the weirdest thing about this retro-fest was the inclusion of all those gas-guzzling autos from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Not many Cadillacs, Mustangs, Pontiacs or Chevrolets in Parkes in “my day”, of course, but, in the hot summer of 2014, there were at least ten Caddies, according to the Champion Post’s Barry Garment, along with “seven Chevies, six Stangs, three Gals and Ponties, a couple of Birds … and a Linc, Merc, Buick, Olds and Roller”.  (“Merc is short for Mercury, not those German contraptions!” as the Post noted for we non-petrol heads.) And, like the Elvii and Miss Priscillas, the owners of all these old vehicles were competing for the titles of Best Looking and Best Maintained in their classes. (A a 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible was judged the Best Elvis Era Car, with a 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air Four Door Hardtop the runner-up. The Best Classic Car was a 1971 Ford Falcon GT, with a ‘71 Ford Fairlane taking second prize. The 1970s were good years for Ford in Australia, I’m told.)

ElvisFestivalParkes2014_IMGP2510Elvis himself would probably have been dribbling along in a customised gold-plated wheel chair by now were he still alive. Who’d have guessed though, back in Tupelo, Mississippi, that a kid born on the wrong side of the tracks in 1935, would one day spontaneously master the arts of musical fusion and hybridity to become the King of rockabilly Rock’n Roll? A very gifted, very sexy, very innovative singer and musician, and a colossus amongst car collectors.

And who’d have imagined that a tacky wacky festival founded by a couple of his most rabid fans, in a small inland town in a country he never even visited, would one day become a glocal phenomenon, one of a handful of rural festivals to be covered by both The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal? And be listed in Frommer’s 300 Unmissable Events and Festivals Around the World?

But … and this is the question I sweated over as I watched all those Elvii, Miss Priscillas, and Kissin’ Cousins  pass me by … can you call this fossil fuel-driven celebration of mid-twentieth centuriness an arts festival?

Parkes Elvis Festival busker, 2014.

Parkes Elvis Festival busker, 2014.

An irrelevant question for most people in Parkes, I suspect, because,  for a few hot days each summer, this V8 event nearly doubles the town’s population, and pumps five or six million dollars, maybe more, into the local economy. Whatever you call the Elvis Festival, it has transformed an otherwise bland and boring country town into the official Elvis Capital of Australia, and, unofficially, into the National Capital of Kitsch. Not my cup of kitsch, it’s true, but thousands of other people love it and return each year for more.

So, what exactly are rural arts festivals then? And what should we expect of them in this twenty-first century, when so many rural towns are struggling to survive, and when rural folk themselves tend to be less healthy, less affluent, less educated, less ethnically diverse and more culturally disadvantaged than city folk? How can rural arts festivals address the challenges these communities now face? I’m hoping we’ll be able to tease out some answers to these questions through this blog.

And there’s another more specific question I’m pondering: Will our Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival centred on Forbes, just half an hour’s drive along the Newell Highway from Parkes, ever deliver millions of dollars into our local economy like the Elvis Festival does? Or will our nobly inclusive futures-oriented values work against such an outcome? An important question in a small country town with an aging and potentially declining population, at a time of global Climate Change.

Meanwhile, let me show you some more of those Elvii, Miss Priscillas, Kissin’ Cousins, and petrol-guzzling, greenhouse gas emitting autos. I snapped them in Clarinda Street and Cooke Park on Saturday and Sunday, 11-12 January 2014. Try clicking on them for a slide show. Last updated 30 January 2014.

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