By Scott Canon
Wheel into town, and the eyes come under assault.
It’s as if Donald Trump married an Ozarks girl and took to redecorating her town. Gold meets calico.
Drive through the hills of Branson, and signs fight for your attention, mostly touting an attraction more patriotic, more church loving, more family-friendly, more country than the next.
Even the neon of today is faithful to Branson’s down-home beginnings of a century ago.
This Ozarks crossroads lacks L.A.’s beaches, Aspen’s slopes, Manhattan’s buzz. And it certainly doesn’t celebrate sin like Las Vegas.
Yet part by calculation, part by happenstance and part by the celebration of hillbilly chic, Branson has grown into a prosperous getaway. It drew 7.5 million visitors last year, slightly fewer than the year before. By one calculation, it ranks 25th on the country’s list of most-popular tourist destinations.
Missouri’s holiday holler has shown tourism staying power. Even as it celebrates its 100th birthday this spring with a series of events marking its 1912 incorporation, it remains a mild miracle that bloomed into a country-music company town.
It’s in the midst of healing the wounds from a tornado that bulled through part of its commercial strip earlier this year. And it’s still adjusting to the last big growth spurt that came in the 1990s.
Its marquee acts, and just as importantly their fans, are aging. The eclectic collection of G-rated attractions in town doesn’t just hustle to draw folks to southwest Missouri, but competes to draw them once they land (now more conveniently at a new airport). And the perception of the city as a place where country-music legends still play after their touring days has been watered down a bit.
Still, Branson stands as a thriving budget vacation spot linked to an earlier age and the pastimes and entertainers that came with it. Community leaders feel no embarrassment peddling country sensibilities — maybe even Grandpa’s version of country — even as they try to update to 21st-century audiences.
“We feel like it’s a wholesome place,” said Raeanne Presley. She’s mayor and a married-in member of one of the oldest theater families in town. “We’re proud of our country. We talk about faith. We’re about families.”
This big little city makes its dough at places such as the God and Country Theater, the Baldknobbers Jamboree Music Show and the Gone With the Wind Book and Film Museum.
Branson’s rise to become a country star changes depending on who’s telling the story. Was it “Hee Haw” that made the difference, “60 Minutes” or Roy Clark’s decision to settle down?
It’s worthwhile to go back to the 20th century in its infancy and the life of Harold Bell Wright. He summered in the Ozarks for a few years on the advice of a doctor who thought the country air would do him good. He was charmed both by the countryside and its folks. He penned a novel based on the people he met.
That book, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” talks about the goings on of Mutton Hollow and Dewey Bald narrated by a city dweller mixing folklore with tragedy driven by social position and love.
It was an instant hit in 1907. By some accounts, it was the first non-Bible to sell 1 million copies in the United States.
The book was so popular that it immediately kicked off a pilgrimage of readers in search of the corn-fed Xanadu. They toured the nearby Marvel Cave, and when the Ozark Beach Dam formed Lake Taneycomo, the area also began to draw fishermen. Branson incorporated April 1, 1912. The completion of the dam that bottled up Table Rock Lake in 1959 just east of Taneycomo made the area even more of a resort spot.
About that same time, the twang of banjos and the deep whistle of jug music began to beckon visitors. The men of the Mabe family began regular performances at a skating rink on the banks of Lake Taneycomo in Branson, mixing hillbilly humor with tunes born of the Ozark Mountains.
In 1960, Silver Dollar City opened by the Marvel Cave with a mock-up of a frontier village and a steam-train ride. It would grow, over the decades, to become a modern amusement park with an Ozarks theme.
Meantime, on old homestead from where Wright had drawn his long-famous novel, an amphitheater sprung up to put on a play of “The Shepherd of the Hills.”
By 1968, the then 900-seat place was selling out nightly for a show that even today includes some 70-plus actors, 32 horses, eight mules, one donkey, a flock of sheep and 11 buggies and wagons. They burn a cabin every night. A fight scene in the show puts cast members in the emergency room on a regular basis. Mounting injuries from performances ultimately led Keith Thurman’s doctor to ban him from the play.
In the 1980s, national stars such as Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, Boxcar Willie and Jim Stafford started to set up shop in Branson and let crowds come to them rather than live on cross-country tour buses. In 1990, Shoji Tabuchi opened a theater anchored on his violin act. In 1994, the Bobby Vinton, Mel Tillis, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride and Lawrence Welk theaters opened.
With that, Branson began to develop a national reputation as the go-to place for country fans.