Hillbilly Heaven

updated 10/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/21/1991 01:00AM

BESIDES THE WAX MUSEUMS, T-SHIRT shops. All-U-Can-Eat-for-$4.95 buffet restaurants, video arcades, water slides, miniature golf courses, and RV campsites for 6,000 vehicles, Branson, Mo. (pop. 3,700), offers even more memorable pleasures—if you happen to be a country music fan. Where else can you walk up and press the flesh with so many of your all-time-favorite superstars?

Just ask retirees Jimmy and Norma Bock of St. Louis, on then-second stay in Branson this year. There they were, strolling hand-in-hand across a parking lot, when who should they see? Conway Twitty, Billboard's all-time hit leader (topping the charts 55 times), that's who. "Jimmy, let's tell Conway it's your birthday," giggled Norma, 60. "Let's tell him we liked his show," said Jimmy, 66. So they did, and Conway in turn pronounced himself honored, flattered, overcome with joy and moved to tears by Norma and Jimmy.

Not far away, Bernard and Virginia Byrnes and Virginia's sister-in-law, Carol Nachreiner, all from Wisconsin, were examining their just-purchased Boxcar Willie tape (title: Jesus Makes Housecalls) from the Boxcar Willie Museum, which is next to the Boxcar Willie Theater, where they had bought tickets to see Boxcar Willie's evening performance—when, oh, my, there he was "Willie, would you sign my T-shirt," Virginia, 66, pleaded. Said Carol, 58: "We don't do much in Wisconsin, so we save all year to come here. We'll keep coming again and again and again and again."

So do lots and lots and lots and lots of other folks, about 4.5 million annually. They clog Highway 76 into and out of Branson, a small Ozark Mountain town 200 miles south of Kansas City, from April through the Christmas season. While there, the tourists manage to spend $1.5 billion each year.

The numbers alone seem proof that Branson is—sorry, Nashville—the new world capital of country music. Already there are 22 theaters with a total of 41,000 seats, which means Branson's seating outnumbers its residents by 11 to 1. There are about 10,000 hotel rooms in town, with another 2,000 under construction. And more's a-coming, much more. Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, are building a 65-acre, $35 million theme park. Andy Williams is putting up a 2,000-seat Andy Williams Moon River Theater, a hint that Branson won't stay exclusively country. Willie Nelson is scheduled to lease a theater and perform twice a day next spring, when a garish new $13 million, 4,000-seat Grand Palace of Country Music is also scheduled to open. "The development is at an explosion stage," says Jan Eiserman, director of the Ozark Mountain Country Marketing Council.

Before Branson's country explosion, the rural community had been a minor tourist stop for some 30 years, appealing mainly to fishermen aiming to drop a line in nearby Table Rock Lake. In 1960 a group of fiddlers started the Baldknobbers Hillbilly Jamboree Show in Branson, showcasing the talents of old favorites like country comedians Droopy and Stub.

Branson broke into the big time in 1983, though, when Hee Haw's Roy Clark lent his name to a celebrity theater that brought top country performers to town. Many of them liked what they saw; some stayed. Boxcar Willie opened his own theater in 1986, followed by the likes of Cristy Lane, Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley, Jim Stafford, Mo Bandy and Ray Stevens.

"It's comfortable here," says Clark, who, with his bass player Rodney Lay, bought his Roy Clark Celebrity Theater outright last April. "It's safe; you don't have to worry about getting mugged outside." Clark plays 110 days a year at the theater and is thinking about buying a home in Branson—"except I already have three houses, but I'm here so much I guess I'll buy another one.

A travel-weary Boxcar Willie long ago discovered the benefits of settling in Branson. "I was booked twice at Roy's place, and I thought if these shows can pull them in, this will get me off the road," he says. "I got the people coming to me now." Assisted by wife Lloene, daughters Tammy and Laurie and son Larry, Willie puts on eight sold-out shows weekly in his 900-seat theater. His Boxcar Willie Museum charges $3 for a look-see at his stuff, which includes Minnie Pearl's diary and Willie's collection of commemorative bourbon bottles. It also sells lots of records, photos and souvenirs, even a Boxcar Willie sucker at $1 each.

"We just love you," Glenn Johnson, 71, told Willie during a recent intermission at his show. Johnson came to Branson with 44 people in a Methodist church group from Temple, Texas, that made the trip by bus. "One of our guys is 91," brags Johnson. "It cost $330 per head for four days and five nights, and we see seven shows. We love it because of the good, clean, wholesome family atmosphere."

On the whole, Branson is still a budget-class resort, an important consideration for retirees. While classier hotels such as the Lodge of the Ozarks charge $85 per night for a single (ice, 25 cents extra), you can find bargains like a complete chicken dinner at the Belgian Waffle & Dinner House for $3.75. Seats in most of the theaters run $10 to $15. "Our prices won't eat your wallet out," says Ken Lowe, owner of the 1,410-seat Lowe's theater since 1983, when he retired as supervisor of sewers in Lebanon, Ind.

While local old-timers like Clifford Bilyeu, 65, can remember when Branson was "a nice, quiet town," few of them resent the changes. "This music stuff gives lots of people jobs," says Bilyeu, pilot of the Lake Queen excursion boat on nearby Lake Taneycomo.

And if you ask Conway Twitty, he'll tell you that he's thinking of packing up his Twitty City theme park in Nashville and moving the whole shebang to Branson. "Nashville blew it," Twitty says. "The Grand Ole Opry fought like a tiger to stay the only show in town and keep everybody else out. Well, Branson stepped in and took over. If there ever was a hillbilly heaven, this is it."

DAN CHU
BILL SHAW in Branson

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