Travel Diary: Branson MO (part one)

I recently returned from a musical pilgrimage to Memphis TN and Branson MO. Stay with me: I had a very good reason to visit Branson. No, really. Over the coming days, I’ll report on various parts of the trip. I’ll do so using the patented No Particular Order™ Method. So, with that in mind, here’s part one of my reportage on Branson.

Branson, Missouri (pop. 6000, about three hundred of whom are nonwhite) is a pretty weird place. Situated on the northern edge of the Ozark Mountains (where I live, we would call ‘em hills, but I digress) and near the southwest corner of the state, Branson may – if you give any thought to the matter – seem like an odd place for the sorts of attractions that flourish there. It’s in the region most Americans of a certain age know as the home of the fictional Clampett family of Beverly Hillbillies fame.

And if, like me, you do drive there, you’ll have plenty of time to ruminate on such issues as “Why Branson?” The place is pretty remote: no interstate highways trouble its outskirts, and its airport (the largest privately owned one in the US, so I hear) only opened a couple of years ago. But people flock there, numbering in the millions. In search of good, clean family entertainment, gazillions of tourists descend upon the little town, year ‘round. The traffic there is a snarl to rival most metropolitan areas on a Friday rush hour: there are only a few roads, and they’re all filled bumper-to-bumper with cars. And days before I was there, temperatures soared to 102°F in the shade. That’s a recipe for frustration, especially for a driver who’s just made the five-hour trek from Memphis.

A rock and roll town it is not. Now, if your tastes run toward such acts as The Osmonds (no, I’m not kidding) or any number of celebrity impersonators, Branson may be your town. There exists a plethora of venues ready to serve up an evening’s entertainment consisting of people who look and sound like Britney Spears, Tina Turner (post-Ike 80s version), and, of course, Elvis. And country music — well, the heavy-on-the-rhinestones variety – is well represented, taking the form of some unholy hybrid of de-sexed Las Vegas revue and a not-at-all grand Opry.

Branson is not, alas, all about music. For fans of comedy (or should I say “comedy”), there’s the home of Ronald Reagan’s favorite comedian. Yes, Yakov “What a Country™” Smirnoff. No, he’s not dead, though John Lennon’s comment (paraphrased: when stars die, they don’t go to hell, they go to Vegas) can apply equally well to Branson. And then there’s a place called, I think, the God And Country Theatre. Despite the fact that it’s housed in a building the size and scope of that facility where NASA used to store the Saturn V rockets before launch, the place is still not the most prominent landmark in Branson.

That dubious honor goes to one of two other places. First there’s the World’s Largest Banjo. But, I must confess, it’s not a real banjo. It’s a stylized one sticking out of a C&W-themed all-inclusive lodging/entertainment facility complete with indoor water park. The other contender is bizarre beyond credulity.

But let me back up: as we were zooming over the hills (okay, mountains) of northern Arkansas on our way to Branson (the only place the road went, as it happens) we took in some lovely scenery, mostly unsullied by billboards. But when we finally did see one, it was a whopper. And not of the sandwich kind. The sign entreated us to the glories to be found within the aptly-named Titanic Branson.

Apparently every tacky-tourist town (see also: Gatlinburg TN etc.) has one of these, but this one is the “best.” In fact, in the words of one online reviewer, “Normally I can’t stand museums, but I really enjoyed this one.” Now, if that’s not effusive praise sufficient enough to send you on the long drive, well, I don’t know what is. And the building is shaped like – wait for it – the Titanic itself, replete with iceberg! Now, isn’t that enough?

It would seem not, which brings me, finally, back to the sign. A good fifty, sixty miles out of Branson, I guess, is a good place to convince drivers en route that they should add this particular destination to their itinerary. So the Titanic crew (so to speak) sweetens the pot by adding some temporary exhibits. And the current one is titled “New Tribute to the Dogs Onboard Titanic.” In the immortal words of Flo and Eddie, “No, my friends, I am not kidding.”

But I come to explain Branson to rock fans, not to bury it. Amidst all of the glitz, old time photo stands (dozens; I kid you not), goofy golf and bizarre sideshow amusements, there is actually some rock and roll to be found. But you’ve got to know where to look. And where you need to look is this blog, soon, when I continue this story. I saw, heard and met Bill Haley’s Comets and Paul Revere and the Raiders. And they did indeed rock. Stay tuned.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.