Little Town Gets Gridlock As Country Music `Mecca'

Look out, Nashville, this town is gaining on you as seat of twangy music - a letter from Branson, Mo.

FROM April until December, the main five-mile strip here becomes so jam-packed with cars, at times it takes drivers an hour to inch their way through.

For a town whose population bobs at around 3,700, such bumper-to-bumper traffic may seem a little unusual.

But then ... so is Branson.

Located in southwestern Missouri's rolling Ozark Mountains, Branson attracts millions of people each year from as far as California and even Japan. They flock here to partake in what has lofted Branson to more than just another town on a map: its country music shows.

Every day in the afternoon and evening, Highway West 76 - Branson's "country boulevard" - looks a bit like a down-home, glittery version of Las Vegas, minus the casinos. That's when people pour in and out of 30 music theaters for a one-to-two-hour matinee or evening show.

The theaters range from small family-music establishments to large, sprawling buildings owned by such entertainers as Roy Clark and Mel Tillis. The Chamber of Commerce proudly advertises that if a person were to attend a matinee and evening show every day, it would take three weeks to see each one.

Which means that Branson has become what some call the new capital of country music and entertainment.

"Nashville is sort of taking it as a competition," says a rushed ticket taker at the newly opened Grand Palace, a 4,100-seat theater where Louise Mandrell and Glen Campbell perform. "We never meant it to get this way - it just happened."

It all started 33 years ago, when a group of fiddlers called the Baldknobbers opened their Hillbilly Jamboree Show on the banks of Lake Taneycomo. Eight years later the Presley family (no relation to Elvis) built a theater on West 76. The Baldknobbers moved nearby shortly after; other tourist businesses also moved into the area.

But Hee Haw's Roy Clark is said to have started the bandwagon rolling in 1983 when he performed in a celebrity theater that brought famous names to town. Many performers liked Branson and stayed to open their own theaters. Box Car Willie, Jim Stafford (of "Spiders and Snakes" fame), Mickey Gilley, and violinist Shoji Tabuchi are just a few. A number of performers now live here year-round.

Branson's boom hasn't slowed. This year Willie Nelson and Andy Williams opened theaters. Johnny Cash has built an entertainment complex; the Gatlin Brothers plan on opening one next year.

Many people make yearly pilgrimages to this country music mecca.

"There's no place in the world like Branson," says Bobby Dockhurst of Dallas, who describes himself as a fifty-something country-music fan. He and his wife, Georgia, are here for the third time in three years. "Nowhere do you get a chance to see all these great performers and meet them, too."

In between listening to toe-tapping tunes, visitors keep busy with the other activities that keep Branson's tourist business prospering. Water sports and fishing abound around nearby lakes.

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