Post Magazine: Branson, Mo.

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Lauren Wilcox
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 26, 2007; 12:00 PM

In the "Live Country Music Entertainment Capital of the World," the music stars of yesterday have found an unlikely encore -- and created a phenomenon that keeps the faithful coming back in droves. In this week's issue of the Washington Post Magazine, Lauren Wilcox visits Branson, Mo., which she describes as the "afterlife for country music singers."

Lauren Wilcox, a freelance writer living in Jersey City, N.J., last wrote for the Magazine about dog-sledding in Minnesota for the Magazine.

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Laurel, Md:"...afterlife for country music singers."

Before I went to Branson last year, I could have sworn Andy Williams had died five or so years ago; but there he was.

Lauren Wilcox: Thanks for your comment. Had you seen Andy Williams perform before, and if so, what was your impression of him now? I felt like all the folks I saw were still really in quite good form, with a lot of energy and verve. It can't be easy to perform five nights a week, like Mickey Gilley does, and yet the two-hour show seemed effortless for him.

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Baltimore Md: I find it odd that the article's title referred solely to country musicians and yet the major piece of photography was of comedian Yaakov Smirnoff. The fact is, Branson is not so much a country music phenomenon as it is a time machine back to an era of wholesome entertainment. I mean, you have to stretch the definition of country music a long, long, long way to include Andy Williams.

Actually, country has long been the one form of popular music where older musicians(sometimes, much older) have been able to keep their careers going. Before Branson, those gigs were restricted to smaller towns and the state fair circuit, but the fans kept coming to see the likes of Kitty Wells and other stars whose careers began 40,50, or even 60 years ago.

Lauren Wilcox: Thanks so much for writing in. I agree; my primary impression of Branson was that it is a place where that vintage kind of wholesome entertainment still exists. I did also end up feeling like that particular brand of old-time entertainment is an ancestor of modern country music, or at least that the audiences were similar. What I found even more interesting is that in Branson, the definition of old-time entertainment had expanded to include pop acts and even Russian comedians. It was like an entire way of life that had enfolded several disparate genres. Your point that country music stars just keep on going is absolutely right, and I think it's one of the main reasons for Branson's success. Thanks again for writing.

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Baltimore, Md: Thanks for the interesting article on Branson. It sounds like a fun place to visit with my wife, but you mentioned a third of the visitors were families. Other than old crooners, what's there for families with kids to do?

Lauren Wilcox: Thanks for the question. All of the shows I went to had kids in the audience; they all make a point to be very "kid friendly." Some might even be MORE appropriate for kids than adults. The kids all seemed enthralled... There's a live-action dinner show called the Dixie Stampede that was a hoot and would be great for kids. Also a Ripley's Believe It or Not, a museum about the Titanic, plenty of putt-putt places, Chinese acrobat shows, old west dress-up photo places...Lots of new construction there, too, so I'm sure the list keeps getting longer. It was definitely a very family-centric place!

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Louisville, Ky: What? No mention of Silver Dollar City, which was one of the first attractions (it used to draw folks from Kansas City, where I grew up) way back in the 1960s. And where was Shoji Tabuchi, who was at the heart of that "60 Minutes" episode?

Lauren Wilcox: Yes, Silver Dollar City was definitely one of the seminal attractions in Branson. I didn't call it by name in the piece, when I talked about the cave that a couple from Illinois turned into a tourist attraction in the 60s. This was Marvel--originally "Marble"--Cave, and the Herschends were the family that expanded their cave-tour business into a reconstructed old mining town--and million-dollar-tourist attraction--called Silver Dollar City. Thanks for bringing that to our attention. And I heard so many people sing the praises of Shoji Tabuchi! I was sorry that I didn't get to see him. Many thanks for your comments.

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Washington, DC: Before reading your article, I could not have imagined visiting Branson with all the RV's, senior citizens, traffic jams, and Ocean City like miniature golf courses, etc. But now, I'm really interested, although I'm not that old, don't own an RV and hate junk food places. Other than the shows you featured, what are some of the other highlights tht I should not miss?

Lauren Wilcox: Thanks for joining the chat. Well, at the risk of sounding like the Branson Chamber of Commerce, there definitely is other stuff there. Let's see, apparently there is award-winning trout and bass fishing in the nearby countryside, and Lake Taneycomo is a big recreational attraction. Branson Landing is a huge new development, with lots of upscale shopping & dining, slated to be finished soon if it's not already. Everyone told me Shoji Tabuchi, the violinist, is really a must-see. And frankly I was rather sorry that I missed The John Wayne Story, which is a one-man show about the life of John Wayne, by a guy whose name is actually John Wain. I think the best thing to do is go with an open mind. Some of it is fancy, some is corny, but it's all pretty entertaining.

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west coast: Speaking of the definition of "country music", wasn't that a term used to define American music originally played by black as well as white musicians, and codified to mean segregated music, whereby the same sort of music played by blacks was redefined as being "race records"? THANKS for the article, and did you see the Lawrence Welk band in Branson?

Lauren Wilcox: Well, that's a very interesting question, and I'm no musicologist, though I'm sure that the ways in which American music has been classified over the years has affected its evolution. As I used it in the story, I intended it to mean music in the white rural tradition, which has its roots in bluegrass and other styles popularized by Anglo settlers. However, it's certainly impossible to parse all of a style's influences, and I'm sure there was overlap. Now I'll have to go look it up after the chat. Thanks for raising the question.

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Beltsville, Md: I visited Branson a couple of summers ago.

It was a bit eerie for someone from the Baltimore-Washington area to find yourself in a 100 percent (or so it seemed) non-Hispanic white environment.

Lauren Wilcox: Thanks for the comment. Sure, I think it's safe to say that small middle-American towns are often much less racially diverse than big cities. I always find it interesting how America can hold such a diversity of communities. Small towns are quite remarkable in their own right, and have a much different feel and identity than cities, for better and for worse. I found that small-town feeling to be very prevalent in Branson, a relatively isolated town of 7000, and also in its entertainment.

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Strange coincidence: Lauren: Last night, I happened to see a TV commercial for Branson and ended up at a Web site that lists the performers and theaters there. Several acts promoted themselves as "morning shows." What does that mean? How do these shows differ from the afternoon and evening entertainment?

Lauren Wilcox: As far as I know, the shows are similar or the same, though it might be worth investigating that on an individual basis. Lots of shows have similar showtimes, so I think many throw in some morning shows to attract an off-hour crowd. Thanks for writing in.

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Downtown DC: Is there any information about how the boom in Branson has affected what once were similar tourist destinations like Nashville and Gatlinburg?

Lauren Wilcox: Good question. Gatlinburg, as far as I am aware, is still going strong in a similar vein as Branson. Nashville is somewhat different, I think, because it's a larger city, focusing more on current country music, though it does have a strong sense of its own history. I'd be surprised if it was affected by the uptick in Branson. All speculation on my part, though. Thanks for writing.

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Lauren Wilcox: So, it looks like that's all we have time for today. Thanks to everyone who wrote in--it's always a pleasure to hear from readers.

Lauren Wilcox

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