The Hipster's Guide to Branson
Sunday, December 29, 2002
I don't know who Bobby Vinton is. I faintly remember Mel Tillis from "Cannonball Run." And I tend to confuse Andy Williams with Anson Williams, who played Potsie on "Happy Days." So what was I doing in Branson, Mo., that living museum of easy-listening entertainment in the Ozarks, where all of the above perform?
Blame it on a friend of a friend. This acquaintance (I refrain from naming names) had escorted his grandmother there, and much to his shock, ended up having a smashing time -- once Granny was tucked in for the night. Then I heard that a popular guidebook had ranked the city as a "hot, emerging" destination.
Branson? Where 65 percent of visitors are "mature" travelers? Where most of the acts predate Woodstock the Original? This I had to see.
Branson, a city of more than 6,000 about 250 miles southwest of St. Louis, bills itself as the "Live Music Capital of the World," attracting 7 million visitors a year. With up to 80 shows per day, it's got more theater seats (61,714) than Broadway. In addition to Vinton, Williams and Tillis, regular headliners include the Osmond Brothers (minus Donny and Marie); George Jones, who was a chart-topper a half-century ago; and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, featuring ostriches, horseback-riding singers and a four-course meal (but no Parton) set inside an eponymous theater as flashy as the star herself.
The city has been rated the No. 1 motorcoach bus destination in the United States by the American Bus Association, as well as the top place in the country to retire by Searchers Inc., a company that caters to "senior lifestyles." Average age of the Branson visitor: 56.
More reassuringly, though, at least for someone who has yet to pluck a silver hair, Branson also contains some of the best vacation ingredients in the Midwest: a never-ending supply of live music, outdoor activities aplenty, flea markets, cheap home-cooked buffets and a J. Crew outlet.
So I booked a room at the Hillbilly Inn and bought tickets to the edgiest shows I could find: Jim Stafford, an all-around entertainer who's been compared to David Letterman, and Shoji Tabuchi, who is all the rage in town for his mix of singing, dancing and violin playing. Both shows were suggested by a local tour operator who was born during the Carter era.
The shows sounded promising, but as I wandered around town, peering into theaters and flea markets, I felt out of place amid all the white-haired tourists in elastic-band pants who seemed to surround me -- boarding buses, standing in ticket lines, pawing through boxes of dusty, warped records that they'd probably once bought as new releases.
"We're stuck in Lawrence Welk Land. Most of the people who come here are over the age of 55," said Tim Haygood, who at 25 is the oldest member of the Haygoods, a family act similar to the Osmonds. "But that is going to dry up in five or six years."
I'd spotted Haygood, a less-toothy Matt Damon type, at the Shoji Tabuchi show, and tailed him as he bolted past the oldsters in the lobby. I wanted him to be my friend, or at least tell me where he hangs out when he's not onstage. "What do you do for fun around here?" I chirped, realizing that it sounded like a bad pickup line. He told me he drag races at the old airport, bounces on his trampoline and plays music.
I pressed on: "Is Branson really caught in a time warp, as it seems?" His response: Yes and no. The town definitely draws a Golden Oldies crowd, he said, but the place is getting hipper and younger.
For example: It now offers a '70s revival show, as well as "Legends in Concert," which features celebrity impersonators of stars like Elton John, Shania Twain and Michael Jackson. Then there's Stafford, a singer-comedian who mixes hokey jokes with irreverent asides and naughty antics, such as tossing wet (non-organic) cow patties into the audience. Stupid pet tricks -- Dave would be so proud.