TUPELO • Being the youngest competitor there didn’t stop 21-year-old Taylor Rodriguez of Goode, Virginia, from walking away the winner of the 21st annual Tupelo Elvis Festival Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition Saturday night at BancorpSouth Arena.
“It is one of the most unfelt feelings I’ve ever felt, if that makes any sense. It is beyond words, and that’s how I would describe it. It’s just beyond words right now. I’m just on this high and it just keeps going,” Rodriguez said.
The UETA finals started at 6 p.m., whittled down to five final performers from the top 10 who made it to semifinals earlier that day.
Rodriguez was the first performer of the night and won for his performance of “Polk Salad Annie,” which was originally written by Tony Joe White and covered by Elvis Presley. His performance was followed by co-finalists Lee Alexander, Alex Mitchell, Mario Kombou and Josh Davis.
After the competitors performed, last year’s festival winner, Nick Perkins, performed his showcase.
“It’s very humbling to be able to come back to Tupelo, at the birthplace, and be able to do a showcase instead of just a song or two. That way, it gives people the opportunity to see who you are as a performer and not just in a contest setting,” Perkins said.
Perkins received the key to the city. He also had words for the winner: “Congratulations and enjoy the ride, because it definitely is a life-changing experience.”
After Perkins’ showcase, Mayor Jason Shelton helped announce Rodriguez the winner of the competition and Davis as the people’s choice winner. Davis also placed second, while Kombou placed third.
Rodriguez was visibly moved by his win and celebrated by hugging his fellow competitors, who all wore a variety of white jumpsuits reminiscent of Presley. Rodriguez received a winning check from the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, a trophy from the Elvis Presley birthplace and a guitar from Tupelo Hardware.
Rodriguez wore an all-white jumpsuit with fringe details. He performed “Impossible Dream” as his victory song.
“The crowd was unbelievable. These are true Elvis fans here, and that’s what makes this contest great,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez developed an interest in Presley at the age of six and started performing when he was nine. To prepare for this moment, he has been practicing for Tupelo Elvis Fest more than six months. He’s also performed in previous competitions, usually placing second or in the top five.
“I practice pretty much every single day and to come here to Tupelo and take this win back home is amazing. I worked and worked and worked and studied Elvis as much as I could, and this is where it got me,” Rodriguez said.
Following intermission, there were performances by Brandon Bennett, David Lee and Dean Z.
The final performance signaled the end of the festival, which had been jam-packed with activities from Wednesday. In between semifinals and finals, participants were invited to visit downtown Tupelo, where a reenactment of Elvis Presley purchasing his first guitar occurred in Tupelo Hardware.
“Since Elvis bought his guitar here in 1946, we over time became a destination place for Elvis fans,” said owner George Booth II.
The iconic scene was played by Allen Cayson, Katrina McElyea and her son, whose stage name is Cooper Lee Perkins. Cayson portrayed Mr. Forrest Bobo, the man who sold Presley his first guitar, while McElyea played Presley’s mother, Gladys, and Perkins portrayed a young Elvis.
“I still get chill bumps every time I tell an Elvis story or someone tells me a story, and when you see the reenactment, and you’re thinking about how that actually happened, it’s very emotional for me,” said Connie Tullos, the vice president of Tupelo Elvis Fan Club.
Tupelo Hardware also had Elvis’s first guitar on display, which is on temporary loan from the guitar owner for the festival. For Danny Goza, the grandson of Bobo, this was his first time seeing both the reenactment and the guitar.
“I’ve never seen the guitar except over the internet before, and I was kind of taken aback to know that my family had such a part in the birth of rock and roll,” Goza said.
Just a few doors down, another actress, Debby Gibbs, could be found sitting in front of Raw Furniture Co. portraying Mrs. Camp, Presley’s sixth-grade teacher. There were also meet-and-greets with other Elvis tribute artists in downtown stores, and live performers were on the street.