WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s been just over two decades since television’s 60 Minutes anointed Branson the “live music capital of the universe” and launched this southern Missouri town into the destination it is today. Success, and a shack leveling tornado, has brought urban chic to this scene, making the traditional Ozark Mountain God and country core a bit harder to find.
Today the destination serves a diverse audience.
Golf courses, lakeside resorts, and Branson Landing - the upscale riverfront development project that’s added such components as fine dining venues, the Hilton Branson Convention Center, and upscale shopping emporia now joins the local mix that brings such old favorites as Dick’s Old-Time 5&10 on Main Street, along with the Farmhouse Restaurant. Outdoor excursion companies offer zipline and Segway adventure.
Some say this Missouri town of 10,000 people has evolved into a mini Vegas – without the gambling and all-night alcohol soaks. Branson does sleep before midnight, yet glitzy, high-tech international shows mingle with Branson’s remaining shows that brought the world to these hills: “The Baldknobbers” and “The Presleys’ Country Jubilee.” To wit: “The 12 Irish Tenors” or “The Red Neck Tenors” – take your pick.
Vegas tribute shows along the lines of “Legends” populate the local lineup of about 100 shows that run morning, afternoon, and evening. Many shows serve up southern gospel numbers with a granola of high-flying talent you might find onboard the Showboat Branson Belle, a two-hour dinner and show cruise on Table Rock Lake.
For travelers with interest in Branson’s traditional heritage core, these are some don’t-miss stops:
Silver Dollar City: Modern thrills meet authentic heritage inside this unique theme park with an 1880’s era theme. Ride the Outlaw Run, a daring new wooden coaster, or descend into the big natural hole in the ground (Marvel Cave) that was the genesis of this family-friendly park over 50 years ago.
Or, you can sit a spell with The Homestead Pickers in an authentic 1843 “saddlebag” log cabin. Their mountain music is as real as the featherbed and wood stove inside. The rustic Wilderness Church next to the cabin is the scene for weddings and daily hymn singalongs.
The park’s annual Southern Gospel Picnic is August 23-September 2, and takers will relish the music Ozark pioneers and their descendants have enjoyed for generations at churches, county fairs, and backyard family get-togethers. Plenty of smoked and fried chicken fixin’s come with the music.
Shepherd of the Hills: Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 story about the hardscrabble lives of 19th century Ozarks pioneers comes alive on an outdoor stage as it has for over five decades in Branson. Wright’s story of loss and the true meaning of life is carried by more than 80 actors, live animals, a vintage automobile, and even a burning cabin. The book has sold millions, and the play has been seen by millions since it launched Branson tourism in the 1950’s.
Harold Bell Wright Museum: Housed under roof with the World’s Largest Toy Museum (a site worthy of several hours’ time), the early 20th century pastor and author is remembered in artifacts such as his original handwritten manuscript of Shepherd of the Hills, gun collection, household possessions, and first editions of his books. Ask to see a copy of the letter President Ronald Reagan wrote to a family member in 1984, citing Wright’s book - That Printer of Udell’s - as a major influence on his personal faith.
Sight&Sound Theatre: The Holy Bible has been the “good book” in Ozarks culture for generations, and in this 2,000-seat theater (whose flagship stage is in Lancaster, PA), Bible stories come alive with live animals, high-tech color and original music. “Joseph” is the current production, running through October. “Miracle of Christmas” runs November and December.
Hard Work U: Otherwise known as College of the Ozarks, this campus is home to The Keeter Center. There the ambiance of another era is served up in log building construction reminiscent of a handcrafted Maine or Rocky Mountain lodge. The 15 suites with fireplaces and balconies overlook tranquil Ozark scenery and are in high demand.
Hard Work U educates needful students who work for part of their tuition and graduate debt-free. Also on campus find the Ralph Foster Museum, where exhibits such as a working mill and dairy, greenhouses, and Williams Chapel tell the history of the Ozarks region.
Grand Jubilee: The Grand Jubilee in Branson, Missouri performs daily at the Grand Country Theater on the famous 76 Country Music Boulevard. A spectacular cast of talented performers creates a family friendly show, rooted in midwestern Christian values, that has the audience laughing, singing and simply enjoying.
The show features Jackie Brown and Todd Bradshaw, and the comedy team Jamie Haage as “Jim Dandy” and emcee Mike Patrick. Jamie Haage is a remarkable performer, highlighted by the show’s conclusion in which Haage, who learned on his front porch from his family of musicians, plays every single instrument, including the elusive slide guitar. The man is nothing short of a virtuoso.
The Grand Jubilee Show and cast have collected a list of awards including Branson’s “Best Variety Show,” “Quartet of the Year,” “Band of the Year,” “Comedian of the Year,” “Emcee of the Year,” “Fiddle Player of the Year,” “Bass Guitar Player of the Year,” “Banjo Player of the Year” and “Steel Guitar Player of the Year.”
For more Branson visitor information, visit www.explorebranson.com.
Read more of Ruth Hill’s faith travel columns at Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities.
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