Big Time in Tune Town

By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, March 25, 2007

IF THERE IS AN AFTERLIFE FOR COUNTRY MUSIC SINGERS, it must look something like this: a spacious auditorium, climate-controlled and spotless. Each of its upholstered seats has an unimpeded view of the stage, which is wide and deep enough for a singer and a full complement of musicians, as well as two statuesque backup singers in spangled gowns, and a white-lacquered piano. The country music singer -- in this case, Mickey Gilley -- is equally refined, in glossy cowboy boots and a suit discreetly studded with black rhinestones. The backdrop is an enormous video screen, onto which is projected a life-size image of a roadhouse bar, providing some of the rough romance of such a setting without the cigarette smoke or drunken brawls.

Gilley is nearly 70, but his voice is rich and polished. Every seat in the auditorium is filled, and the crowd is responsive, appreciative, polite -- a performer's dream. The visitors know by heart the words to all his songs; they sing along without prompting. Now and then, people make their way up to the edge of the stage, where they wave at Gilley or take his picture or even, like one man in red suspenders and khaki shorts, reach up and shake Gilley's hand vigorously and at length, let go, and then grab it again, because, why not, it's Mickey Gilley, at the Mickey Gilley Theatre in Branson, Mo., "Live Entertainment Capital of the World," and such a chance might not come again. At least not until tomorrow's show.

I've come to Branson to investigate how this mountain hamlet, population 7,000, has produced this slogan, "Live Entertainment Capital of the World." Branson has long been a regional destination with a modest local music scene, but in the last 15 years or so, a number of bigger names have set up shop along the two-lane highway that runs through town: seasoned, if not grizzled, entertainers such as Andy Williams, Mel Tillis, Bobby Vinton and the Oak Ridge Boys, as well as seeming outliers such as the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff, and a spate of low-budget nostalgia shows with themes such as the '60s, Elvis and John Wayne. It is true, too, that people are coming -- by one estimate, the town now hosts nearly 8 million visitors a year, putting it handily in the league of the nation's most popular tourist destinations. What is less clear, at least from the outside, is why.

Gilley was never a superstar, but he had a respectable career that peaked in the late '70s and early '80s, when he had a string of Top 10 country hits and his nightclub, Gilley's, in Pasadena, Tex., was featured in the movie "Urban Cowboy." From the looks of it -- a sea of bottle-blond perms and oiled steel-gray pompadours -- the folks at his show were probably in their honky-tonking prime during his most successful years. "You ladies made this a No. 1 hit for me," Gilley says before waving a glittering hand and singing "A Room Full of Roses." A little frisson of anticipation sweeps the room.

Gilley moved to Branson in 1991, after his career and lifestyle slowed down at the end of the '80s. Most of his band in Branson is made up of his longtime musicians who made the move with him. "The Urban Cowboy went downhill," he says. "Everything changes in time." His performance schedule is still full -- he plays five nights a week, about six months a year -- but he finds Branson's laid-back atmosphere suits him. "I'm at the point now when I can't party like I used to," he says. He appreciates the freedom of owning his own theater. "I get to do exactly what I want to here," he says. "I get to meet the people."

As it turns out, it has also been a wise business decision. "I haven't had a hit record in God knows how long, but I've sold more records here than I ever have," he says.

Outside, after the show, traffic on State Route 76 is creeping along in what I come to learn is one of Branson's twice-daily traffic jams, dependable as the tides, which commence at the conclusion of the 2 o'clock and 8 o'clock shows. There are 48 theaters in Branson, and on any given day, including weekdays, there are dozens of live shows. The Strip, as the route is called, is a lower-wattage, G-rated version of its Las Vegas namesake, knee-deep in a few generations of tourist attractions: a Ripley's Believe It or Not, Old West photo places, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets, vintage motor lodges such as the Thunderbird Motel ("We Believe in Jesus"), and dinosaur- and jungle-themed miniature golf courses with dyed blue water in the waterfalls and active volcanoes. The road winds gently through the landscape. In this part of Missouri, the Ozarks have a regular, rolling quality, more a series of undulating hills than mountains, and Branson sits among them like a small craft in a choppy sea.

I am staying at the Alpenrose Inn, off a side street at the edge of town, a two-star hotel done in pale mauve stucco with vaguely alpine garrets at the corners. The key to my room is an actual key, made of brass. I mention to the clerk that I'd like to park my rental car within view of my room.

"You can park it by the office if you want," he says politely, and then can't resist a little sniff of disgust at my concern. "Branson," he says. "The only crime here is Andy Williams singing off-key."

BRANSON'S TRANSFORMATION FROM TINY MOUNTAIN TOWN WITH A FEW PROVISIONAL ACTS to a thriving tourist destination has been slow but sure, the product, in large part, of a century's worth of fortuitous events as well as some well-timed publicity. A hundred years ago, the area that would become the town was a remote but increasingly popular regional spot for hunting and fishing. It became more popular with the national success of a novel set in the area, The Shepherd of the Hills, loosely based on the story of local characters, which piqued the curiosity of travelers. Recreational fishing increased with the construction of Table Rock Dam, completed in 1958; in the 1960s, a family from Illinois bought a local cave and turned it into a tourist attraction. Around the same time, a couple of local families, the Presleys and the Mabes, began performing music and comedy routines -- also in area caves.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, the Presleys and Mabes began touring regionally in the off-season. Other family acts built theaters in Branson, and the town's reputation grew. In 1983, country music virtuoso Roy Clark, co-host of the television show "Hee Haw," opened a theater in town and began booking nationally known country artists. Branson's entertainment community started promoting itself on cable's Nashville Network, and by 1990, Branson had a healthy country music scene, which brought in 3 1/2 million visitors a year.

In 1991, "60 Minutes" sent a news team to Branson, and the resulting 20-minute piece included a few moments that people still recall today as turning points in the town's history. "The reporters called Branson the live country music capital of America," Chamber of Commerce representative Dan Lennon says. "And they said that seniors love it here." Perhaps the most memorable moment came in an interview with aging country music star Mel Tillis, to whom a reporter said, "I've heard that here you can make $6 million in six months."

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