There are more than a dozen performers in all — Presleys and non-Presleys — in sparkly embroidered jackets and shimmering, clingy dresses, covering country standards such as Randy Travis’s “I Told You So” and Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Among their fans on this night are retirees Bill and Jo Hale, who’ve driven eight hours from Houston to this Ozarks entertainment oasis, home to 30-odd theaters filled with country singers, illusionists, religious spectacles and equestrian acts.
The genial Hales, return Branson customers and both members of the Texas Senior Softball Hall of Fame, chuckle appreciatively as Gary Presley, in his goofy torn hat, sunflower-yellow shirt and blue overalls, appears between songs with Eric in a clowning bumpkin act as old as Shakespeare. When the band does a version of the theme song from the 1960s sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” I end up singing along, and some of the one-liners rattled off by Herkimer and Cecil are so corny that they make me laugh and cringe at the same time.
“There’s a food that will ruin your love life,” Gary declares. “Wedding cake!”
Live entertainment has been king in these parts since the 1960s, geared to a heartland audience, a customer base with which a city-slicker theater critic rarely interacts. So I traveled to Branson, a town of 12,000 that swells to as many as 70,000 on high-season weekends, to sample what a wide swath of America opts for when it wants to see a show. Few places in the country host a professional show-business destination as quirky and expansive as this Missouri mountain town a few dozen miles north of the Arkansas border. Singer Andy Williams opened a theater here. So did comedian Yakov Smirnoff.
My curiosity was piqued out of a sense that most Americans look forward to a night on the town, but that we are divided on what that night should look and feel like. It’s a reflection, of course, of a huge nation of divergent tastes, but also of the chasms in our national cultural life. After a pandemic slide, Branson clocked some 10 million tourists in 2021 and is on pace to exceed that in 2022, according to data from the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. The majority arrive by car and bus from a 650-mile-wide geographic circle stretching from Texas to Illinois, from Oklahoma to Kentucky. (In 2021, only 8,227 visitors to Branson came from outside the United States.)
They come, of course, for the music, inspired by Nashville and Vegas and by the great guitar and banjo picking tradition of these mountains. Branson traces its popularity in part to pickers in the Presley family, who entertained tourists in the Ozark caves back in the day. Roy Clark, Wayne Newton and Willie Nelson are just some of the stars who have played here.
But many visitors also come to reaffirm their bedrock values. It’s no secret that Branson caters largely to a clientele that worships a Christian God and nurtures a certain vision for the country: On downtown’s homey West Main Street, T-shirts hang outside souvenir shops emblazoned with “I Stand for the Flag, I Kneel for the Cross” and “Whoever Voted Biden Owes Me Gas Money.”
I can’t at times escape the feeling of being a spectator twice removed, one whose world outlook probably isn’t widely shared in this pretty corner of red state Missouri.
“Sir, are you carrying a concealed weapon?” asks the front-door attendant at “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” a show complete with a gut-busting chicken dinner, during which 1,000 guests sit around a rodeo-style ring for a pageant of horsemanship, real live buffalo roaming and agility dog contests.
The idea of packing heat to eat biscuits and watch piglets race around a dirt track startles me.
“Concealed weapons? Is that a thing?” I ask the guard. He looks at me as if I am nuts.
Testimonials to faith occurred often during the eight performances I attended in late September (tickets ranged from a reasonable $42 to $85), and at nearly every one, military veterans were asked to stand for a round of applause. The Stars and Stripes were displayed ceremonially, for example, at the conclusion of “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” with a flag-bedecked parade of horses and a recording of Parton singing patriotic tunes.
I had far more fun at the concert-style shows, such as the Boomer-nostalgic “Anthems of Rock” anthology, with a high-energy cast of singers and dancers performing Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Elton John, Tina Turner and Bon Jovi. I grooved, too, on the Presleys and other families performing country tunes by Johnny Cash or popularized by Barbara Mandrell.
Elsewhere, such as a performance by the gizmo-crazed country band the Haygoods or a cruise on the Showboat Branson Belle on Table Rock Lake, American flags flash electronically on screens. The tributes come to feel required, like the bygone days of prayer in public schools. Even magician Rick Thomas — onetime Vegas mainstay and now headliner of the “Rick Thomas Mansion of Dreams” show at the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in the Branson Entertainment District — ends his performance with “Please thank the veterans again.”
But MAGA caps, surprisingly, are nowhere to be seen in the overwhelmingly older, White crowds. (I counted an occasional Black couple, a Latino family, one woman in a hijab.) The vibe around town is country-cordial: “You have to be hyper customer-friendly,” says Rachel Wood, the chamber’s chief marketing officer, adding that this isn’t a Branson strategy so much as part of the local culture. The performances are mostly nonpartisan, although Gary-as-Herkimer does offer a mildly skeptical joke at the expense of climate change. The only time I feel discomfort is at the most eye-poppingly lavish event of my stay, an epic-scale mounting of the story of Jesus — titled “Jesus” — by Sight & Sound theaters, a company with a sister theater in Lancaster, Pa.
“Jesus” is a theatrical spectacle with music, of a size that would have had Cecil B. DeMille genuflecting. A cast of 50 performs on monumental sets wrapping halfway around a 2,000-seat theater that from the outside looks like a cross between a faux classical megachurch and a mall. The son of God walks on water; Jesus heals a leper and banishes moneylenders from the temple; Lazarus rises from the dead; camels, goats, sheep and horses stride up and down the carpeted aisles. No expense seems to have been spared in this well-put-together, two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, with scenes of everything from the manger to the crucifixion.
The place is packed and the audience is rapt for the matinee. “Godspell,” however, this ain’t. In multiple scenes, the rabbis of Israel are portrayed as excessively vociferous advocates of Jesus’ execution. At times they chant devoutly in Hebrew, but at others are depicted as menacing and conspiratorial, characteristics that play into ugly stereotypes. The interpretation is dispiriting and queasy-making, feelings confirmed when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate gets a mere walk-on, in which he’s besieged by the rabbis and instantly accedes to their demands for blood.
Some tourists I run into say they’ve traveled to Branson principally for “Jesus” (a “Miracle of Christmas” show starts next, in November), which is in keeping with the area’s long-standing spiritual allure. It was a 1907 best-selling novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills” by author-preacher Harold Bell Wright, that put the region on the map, with its inspirational tone and portraits of the country folk he had encountered: “Many miles,” Wright wrote, “from what we of the city call civilization.” (John Wayne starred in the 1941 Hollywood version.)
In the rolling terrain a few miles from downtown, a “Shepherd of the Hills” theme park features an outdoor drama based on Wright’s book, performed by dozens of actors in the Thurman Outdoor Theatre.
“His story told of the beauty of the Ozarks, and the strength of the people who lived in the area,” says Jeff Johnson, a former banker showing me around the 177-acre adventure park, which he bought with a partner when it was in financial arrears several years ago. “We have an obligation to tell the story in the way Harold Bell Wright brought it to attention.”
This literary legacy places Branson in a solid narrative framework. And it is the native impulse to gather crowds and sing and talk about the history and traditions of this part of the world that most intrigues me. The strip — a miles-long byway officially known as West 76 Country Boulevard — may offer the chain restaurants and attractions of any other glitz-minded entertainment district. But what makes the Branson experience most memorable are the performances that resonate authentically with the countryside.
Like the Petersens, who play their American roots music in the most intimate space I encounter, the 200-seat Little Opry Theatre on Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. They are another local family, like the Presleys and Haygoods, who exhibit what appears to be a genetic predisposition to G clefs and arpeggios. Mom Karen is on bass, with her adult children Katie on fiddle, Ellen on banjo and Matt on guitar, and an “honorary Petersen,” Emmett Franz, playing a dobro guitar, which he holds sideways and fingerpicks. (Another singing Petersen sister, Julianne, is studying English literature at Oxford.)
Their fresh, easygoing manner and effortless harmonizing melt smoothly over their bluegrass arrangements, which bounce enjoyably from John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” to the gospel “Down to the River to Pray,” to the Eagles’ “Desperado.” The devotional messaging crops up in their show, too: “We have some friends here from the Collinsville Church of Christ,” Matt announces at one point. But the spirit that moves me most joyfully comes in a delightful, twangy version of Abba’s “Mamma Mia.”
Ellen, who’s married to Michael Haygood of those singing Haygoods, says the roots of the band are in their mom’s passion. “She just loved music,” Ellen says. “And so that’s why she got her master’s in music education. Like music theory is her jam.” In their patter between songs, the Petersen siblings like to point out their own variety of degrees, in chemistry, business — their father, a physician, went to Johns Hopkins. It’s a charming way of letting their fans know more about them, and that their interests extend further than their instruments might indicate.
A reminder of a rewarding centering of family and artistic pursuit is my favorite takeaway from listening to the music in the mountains. The Presleys embody that, too, even after all these years, with their polished silliness and sleek craftsmanship. The glazed pecans at the concession stand are for me a happy memory, too — in a theater that’s full of memories for Gary Presley.
The Presleys often tell the story that when they built their theater, originally called the Mountain Music Theatre, they weren’t sure audiences would come. Gary’s backup plan, he says, was that if things didn’t work out, they could turn the place into a winter warehouse for boats docked on the lake. For more than five decades, though, a sea of faces greeting the pickers and strummers and singers each night has joyfully kept the Presleys’ dream afloat.
“The repeat business has been great,” Gary says. “The audience feels when they come into our theater, it’s a warm, homey feeling. It’s taken 55 years of work to get here.”