PIGEON FORGE, Tenn.
“If you see the tip bucket coming around, don't be offended," Elvis tells the crowd. "That's how we make our money."
He's standing in front of the Grand Resort and Conference Center here in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, off a crowded strip that's all neon lights and totem poles and hillbilly paraphernalia.
Pigeon Forge is odd and unexpected and familiar, like a mix of Vegas and your grandmother's living room. A short walk offers a Red Rooster Pancake House, Old Tyme Photos, camel rides, a go-cart track and Rebel Corner, which, according to the sign, sells T SHIRTS GIFTS SOUVENIRS SWIMWEAR KNIVES SWORDS.
Elvis is Robert Keefer, and if you like the show tonight, you can catch him again at Bennett's Barbecue on Sunday and Thursday, and boy, do we like him. About 100 people are packed into stocky metal bleachers in the parking lot, their faces aglow by the white light of a marquee that advertises DISCOUNTED ROOMS GUARANTEED.
There is a little dancing and a lot of coughing.
Observed T-shirts: Miller Light, Harley-Davidson and Redneck Lawn Mower (featuring a cartoon of a man on a sled holding the hind legs of a goat).
Observed headwear: two cowboy hats, six scrunchies and one ballcap bearing the slogan, "I FARTED."
"We're gonna do one more and then take a little break," says Elvis, hunched over a karaoke job on a folding table by a soda machine.
"I did it my way," a man shouts.
"That's right," Elvis says. "I did it too, and it got me in big trouble."
The crowd roars.
"You go, Elvis!"
The music rolls across the parking lot as more folks stumble in. A newcomer's beer sloshes out of his plastic cup and slaps the parking lot.
"You made me spill my beer," he shouts (is he joking?) at his companion. "That's a ass-whoopin.' "
"I'm sorry, baby," she replies.
A family in a station wagon stops in front of the lot. Traffic is bumper to bumper. The windows are down. Elvis is on the last chords of My Way. You can't see the stars for all the lights.
"Look kids, it's Elvis," mom says. "Everybody say, 'Yay, Elvis!' "
Ben Montgomery, Times staff writer