I don’t blame Hank for his skepticism; the transformation of this little isolated Missouri town -- population 10,000 -- from a modest homesteading community into one of America’s premiere tourist destinations is an unlikely phenomenon that befuddles most non-Ozarkians. In 2009, 7.8 million visitors swung through Branson and 85 percent of them took in at least one stage show while there, generating $3 billion in tourism-related spending. The region now boasts 50 theaters and a larger nightly seating capacity than Broadway. Not bad for a city many Americans could not identify on a map.
Branson’s entertainment infrastructure developed relatively rapidly, beginning in 1959 with the establishment of the Baldknobbers Hillbilly Jamboree Show, a variety show combining country music and “hillbilly humor.” Over the next decade, several theaters catering to visiting fishermen opened up shop along Hwy. 76., now known as The Strip, hosting live shows similar to WLS’ famous National Barn Dance. As Aaron Ketchell describes it, “entertainment was built on … innocent country and gospel music, the promotion of antimodern nostalgia, civil religious patriotism, and a distinct construction of domestic appropriateness expressed though the rhetoric of ‘family values.’” Their business was steady, if a bit narrow in appeal.
It was in the early 1980s, after celebrity country music star Roy Clark came to town, when the game changed. Around that time, Nashville record companies hoping to attract a younger, hipper audience started dropping established artists from their labels. Clark and his dissed compatriots moved 450 miles west, and their audience came with. From the journal Organization Science:
The process accelerated when “people from Nashville started coming,” beginning in 1983 when Roy Clark opened his own theater. By booking stars for limited engagements and continually rotating them, Clark’s theater acted as an “incubator” that introduced them to Branson’s possibilities, encouraging many to set up local theaters and driving a “Country Music Explosion” Celebrities who founded theaters in Branson attracted other celebrities, some of whom also founded theaters after seeing the available opportunities, and these in turn attracted others. Among the “big name country music stars” who settled in Branson were Boxcar Willie, Mickey Gilley, and Mel Tillis. According to informants and documentary sources, Branson offered these older stars a place to be “classics” instead of “has-beens”; a ready market of loyal and adoring fans; a respite from the tedium and rootlessness of years of touring; a vehicle for unfettered artistic expression; and a chance to reconnect with family, community, and friends with whom they had grown up in the business.
Seeking the same accepting atmosphere as their country contemporaries, aging mainstream stars like Williams and Wayne Newton followed suit, drawing more fans (and national media attention) to southern Missouri and establishing it as the self-proclaimed "Live Entertainment Capital of the World.” If the likes of Yakov Smirnoff can consistently sell out 2,000 seat amphitheaters, the title may actually be apt.
What a country! And what a weird town.