Kelli Pryor
May 29, 1992 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Back home we say our Ozark Mountains are as old as Moses’ toes. And so are the mountains’ traditions — dulcimer music, hickory-smoked barbecue, and Slurpees at 7-Eleven. When I was growing up in Joplin, Mo., summer always meant climbing into a First Baptist bus and taking the roller-coaster roads that hump and wind through America’s oldest mountain range. Destination: Branson, Mo., where a kid could always find fried pork rinds, genuine hillbilly postcards, and a hug from Branson’s brightest star, a raggedy character named Droopy Drawers who mugged on stage while the other members of his Baldknobbers band made foot-stompin’ music with banjos, washtubs, and the jawbone of a jackass.

You can’t go down home again. My little Podunk resort now throbs with enough neon to support its growing reputation as a new Nashville — a mid-America music mecca that’s as glitzy as Atlantic City, as tame as Disneyland. Everyone from Boxcar Willie to Willie Nelson has hung a spangled shingle in Branson. The place bristles with second honeymooners and couples with 2.5 kids. Together they spend $1.5 billion a year. Tourism dollars in Nashville (population 514,000) exceeded Branson’s by only $100,000 in 1990, even though Branson’s entire population would fit in the town’s new 4,000-seat Grand Palace — with room for 300 out-of-towners.

From every state in the nation, those vacationers come to hear some of country music’s biggest names playing in 28 theaters with a total of 53,791 seats — 10,000 more than Broadway. ”Branson is a bad word around here,” says Tony Brown, the Nashville record executive who produces such artists as Wynonna Judd and Vince Gill — and he’s only half joking. ”Just think: If Patsy Cline were alive today, she’d be in Branson.”

Consider the recent gala opening of the opulent Grand Palace concert hall: Randy Travis sings and signs the gleaming white Kimball grand piano in the mulberry-carpeted rotunda. And the Gambler himself, Kenny Rogers, sweeps down the spectacular double staircase in sterling-tipped boots to announce that he’s dealing himself in with Branson’s most important brothers, developers Jack and Peter Herschend, who own the Grand Palace and Silver Dollar City, the theme park that put Branson on the tourism map three decades ago.

Why gamble on Branson? ”This one fact impressed me,” Rogers says. ”The Grand Canyon has four million visitors each year, and it’s one of the wonders of the world. Five million people will come to Branson this year.”

Name-in-lights stars have been migrating to Branson since 1983, when Roy Clark opened his theater. But the stampede began after it was reported last year that Mel Tillis had made $6 million in six months here. This season, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson are opening theaters. They join homesteaders like Tillis, Boxcar Willie, Mickey Gilley, Ray Stevens, Moe Bandy, and Jim Stafford. Other country legends, including Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Charley Pride, perform regularly; even hot young stars like Vince Gill and Reba McEntire appear.

To succeed, the big acts are adopting the hokum blueprint of local groups: a crazy quilt of knee-slappin’ tunes, soul-stirrin’ hymns, and laugh-till-Coke-comes-out-your-nose jokes about Grey Poupon mustard. The typical Branson audience is peppered with Baptists, Mountain Dew is the hardest drink on tap (alcohol is not available at the theaters), and ”The Orange Blossom Special” is the perennial No. 1 hit. ”Branson,” says Tillis, ”is a cross between Mayberry and Vegas.”

Nobody does Branson-brand entertainment better than Tillis, 59, who is as famous for his stutter as for his 36 top 10 country hits. One sunny spring morning, Tillis pulls up in his two-tone Chevy pickup and propels his chicken-kneed gait into the lobby of his new-smelling $8 million, 2,101-seat theater. Despite his blend-in-with-the-crowd Florida Gators cap, a fan recognizes him. ”I’ve watched you all my life — I love you,” says the excited 60ish woman. ”Well, come here and let me hug your neck,” Tillis says.

”Branson is a miracle for me,” Tillis says as he sits near a wolverine-skin rug on the floor in his dressing room. ”I’ve had 57 albums. But you get older and labels want younger acts. I wasn’t ready to retire, so I made the move. This is the end of the road for me.

”Here, I can go out and plant my tomatoes… and do some fishin’ with my ol’ buddy Shoji.”

Shoji Tabuchi is a genial Suzuki-trained violinist who fell for country music when he heard Roy Acuff in Japan in the ’60s. Tabuchi opened his theater in 1989, and crowds flock to see him play the fiddle behind his back and between his legs. He and Tillis poke fun at each other in a running shtick from their respective stages: ”Where he’s from, they eat a lot of sushi,” Tillis says. ”So if we use live bait, he eats it before I can catch a fish.” (”I don’t do that anymore,” Tabuchi replies from the stage of his theater, grinning. ”Mel just says that because I outfish him.”)

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