The King of the road

Local schoolteacher-turned-historian Stanley Oberst is on the homestretch of an ambitious project: documenting Elvis Presley's frequent, though rarely mentioned, Texas appearances in the 1950s. It's a daunting task, especially considering that Presley played in this state more than anywhere else in the country during the '50s, and, well, Texas is a big state (a whole 'nother country, if the ad campaign from a few years back is to be believed). Oberst has pretty much dedicated himself to the project for the past three years. He drove down every back road in Texas in search of people who saw Presley play--whether it was in an actual venue or the local high school's gymnasium--and hunting through stacks of yellowed newsprint, or in most cases, lots of microfilm for reviews of the show or photographs.

The result of his research, tentatively and simply titled Elvis in Texas, is a combination of oral history and photo essay, featuring a mountain of photographs that haven't been seen in four decades (including the one here) and many that never made it into print at all. (In the interest of full and complete disclosure, Dallas Observer staff writer Robert Wilonsky is helping Oberst edit the book, and the Observer art director is assisting with the design and layout.)

If an hour-long conversation with Oberst is any indication, the book should be almost as relevant to discussions about Presley as Peter Guralnick's acclaimed two-fer Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. It documents a fascinating period in Presley's development: He might not have had many people show up to his concerts, but most of them were girls, and all of them went wild for him. Oberst dug in deep and found out the real story from the people who were there about all of the small-town screw-ups (a promoter's booking gigs for Elvis in Wichita Falls and Seymour on the same day) and short-lived love affairs (just about every city he stopped in).

In the interest of keeping his book fresh, Oberst didn't want to go into too much detail, spoil all of the stories before they even hit the shelves. But the little he did tell us about was good enough to keep us interested, begging him for more information about Elvis' life on the roads through the backwoods of Texas. While we never imagined Presley's life would warrant yet another book, Oberst has us looking forward to it. And since lists more than 700 matches for books about Elvis Presley, that's probably the most daunting task of all.