Travel: A boom town built on broken hearts: Branson, Missouri, has become America's second most popular tourist destination, and it's all thanks to country and western music. Jim White meets some of the stars who found gold in them there hills

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The Independent Travel
KENNY ROGERS strode purposefully to the front of the stage and pointed to a man in the front row. 'You,' he said in his rich rasp. 'Yeah, you in the cap. I bet you didn't want to be here tonight. I bet your wife dragged you here. I bet you couldn't name one of my songs. But you'll know them. Tell you what, every time you recognise one of my numbers, stick your hand up and I'll give you dollars 10. By the end of the evening I reckon you'll have at least dollars 100.'

To prove he meant business, Rogers pulled a wad of bills from the pocket of his tight, tight black jeans and flung a tenner in the man's direction. The man shifted uneasily in his seat, uncertain whether he should lean forward and grab it off the floor.

'Go ahead, take my money,' Rogers urged. 'I don't care. You have it. I've got millions.'

Twenty-five years ago, country and western stars did not have millions. They sang songs about prison and bar-room brawls, about broken hearts and rural poverty ('You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille/Four hungry children and a crop in the field'), songs that were supposed to reflect the depressing circumstances of their personal lives. If, by some lucky chance, they earned a dollar or two, they could always rely on an unscrupulous manager to relieve them of the lot. But then, 25 years ago Branson did not exist.

Branson, Missouri, is the most successful town in the United States. Its resident population is 3,706; this year it expects six million visitors. In less than 10 years, Branson has become the second most popular US tourist destination after Orlando, Florida; annual turnover of the local economy is said to top dollars 1.5bn ( pounds 1bn) and country and western music is responsible for every cent.

'I'm not gonna tell you how much I earn,' said Jim Stafford, who had a hit in the Seventies with Spiders and Snakes and now performs exclusively in Branson, in a guitar-shaped theatre he owns. 'But put your pencil to this: I play to between 800 and 1,200 people, each paying dollars 15, twice a day, seven days a week, 10 months of the year. Let's just say it covers the rent.'

That kind of turnover would cover the rent on Buckingham Palace. No wonder Branson is Kenny Rogers's kind of town.

'I first came here only three years ago,' remembered Rogers, as he sat in his dressing room after his show, his pockets considerably lighter. 'I was knocked out. I thought, 'Boy, do I want to get me a piece of this action]' '

The first hint of Branson comes about 100 miles away, on Highway 44 from St Louis. The traffic, stuck in the slow lane, is all motor homes the size of small housing estates, and silver-sided coaches filled with silver-haired people. On the roadside, billboards begin to appear - 'Wayne Newton: a new face in Branson' and 'Bersoni and van Birsch: first Las Vegas, now Branson.' As the highway climbs into the Ozark Mountains, turning its back on the devastation caused by the Mississippi flood, there are forests of signs along the roadside, advertising shows by Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell: 'Come see us in Branson, y'all.' Behind the hoardings, the tumbling wooded countryside looks like the backdrop to the film Deliverance: dark, forbidding, remote. Then, 50 miles from the nearest sign of civilisation, Branson appears as if from nowhere. You are pitched from the wilderness into a strip of neon signs, motels, restaurants, souvenir shops, video stores, water-slide parks and bungee jump towers.

And theatres. Andy Williams's Moon River Theatre, The Osmond Brothers' Family Theatre, Tony Orlando's Yellow Ribbon Theatre. The biggest of the lot, a fake Southern colonial mansion looking like something from the set of Gone With The Wind, is the 4,000-seat Grand Palace Theatre, co-owned by Kenny Rogers.

Each theatre has a car park the size of Heathrow. Between them, the motels, restaurants and crazy-golf courses all have equally giant parking lots. As Branson is perched on the top of the Ozarks and has little room to grow laterally, the strip has, in the past three years, stretched to more than five miles. A long walk. In any case, if you try to walk during summer, the humidity punches the breath from your lungs. So everyone drives, their windows rolled up to keep the air-conditioning in. The result: Branson has become one long traffic jam.

'It's two miles up the road, turn left at the Osmond Theatre,' said the woman at the tourist information office when I asked about the whereabouts of my motel. 'That's about 20 minutes' drive from here.'

The first big-name country stars did not arrive in Branson until 1983, when Roy Clark, host of a country television show, Hee-Haw, built a theatre on the side of Route 76 and invited a few Nashville friends to perform there. The town had always attracted a decent sprinkling of visitors to the beautiful Ozarks for the fishing on Table Rock Lake, guided tours through limestone caves and a couple of hillbilly music shows performed by local families, but no one expected Clark's venture to take off. It did, like the space shuttle.

Other stars moved into the town, building theatres in which they could perform. This summer there are 27 venues in action and five more under construction. Branson looks like a building site, with condos and motels, diners and shopping malls consuming the wooded hillsides almost by the minute. The plan is to accommodate 25 million tourists a year by 2000.

'They tell me this is how Vegas looked in the Forties,' said Kenny Rogers. 'This here is a gold rush town, boy.'

The first wave of the rush came from older, established country stars anxious to secure a pension. Nashville, as the recording centre of country music, now champions the new wave of performers such as Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks. The likes of Jim Stafford are no longer part of that scene.

'I wouldn't want you to think I didn't have a record deal,' he said. 'I just signed one with CBS as a matter of fact. The deal is they send me a current CD once a month; if I like it I send them a cheque and get to keep it.'

Those older performers, reliant on the nostalgia circuit, found that Branson offered it to them on a plate.

'This is the first time in 30 years that I can sleep two nights in the same bed,' said Stafford. 'No more planes, no more tour buses, the folk just come to me. And I'm in charge of my own destiny. No middlemen, no managers. I own the theatre, I decide who plays there - me - and I take the money. It's beautiful, I've got a house by the lake, I go fishing, I play golf, my kids grow up breathing clean air. Why the hell'd I want to live in a big city like Nashville with all its big city problems?'

Now the bigger old stars - Rogers, Cash - whose names still have a resonance in Nashville, have seen the sense in joining the Branson rush.

'This has become real competition,' said Jim Stafford. 'You can't come in here and expect the dollars to roll anymore. You've gotta work for it, market yourself, contact the tour companies, do deals with the bus companies. Oh, and you've gotta have a good show.'

A Nineties gold rush town Branson may be, but there is little mistaking it for one of 100 years ago. The town is midwestern America at its most patriotic, clean-living and God-fearing. It is almost impossible to buy alcohol here, there is no gambling, the Stars and Stripes flies from every building. Signs saying 'No Profanity' greet customers in the amusement arcades; Silver Dollar City, the hillbilly theme park, hosts daily hymn-singing sessions. There are no black faces or Japanese cars. All-American pick-ups and vans in the Branson jam carry bumper stickers saying: 'Don't blame me, I didn't vote for President Clinton. Or her husband.'

At the Jim Stafford theatre, the star asked the crowd if any were Democrats. There was silence.

'Republican?' he asked.

They roared their approval.

'So where the hell were you guys?' he asked.

'Ain't that a fact?' responded the grey-haired, beer-bellied man in shorts behind me.

Branson draws almost exclusively on a 400-mile radius stretching from Chicago in the north to Dallas in the south. Its core audience comprises the whites of Arkansas, Ohio, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee: young families and retired folk ('empty nesters', in US marketing jargon). Foreigners are a novelty, not because they would not enjoy it - English people in particular would adore the place - but because it is so expensive to get there (flying into St Louis or Kansas City and then hiring a car leaves you with little change from pounds 800).

The dearth of outsiders meant that not one shopkeeper, theatre box office manager or waitress failed to comment on my accent; the man behind the counter of the car hire establishment, taking my address, asked me which state in England I lived in. 'Is that London, Paris?' he asked.

This homogeneous, white, blue-collar, family crowd informs the music shows. Though Kenny Rogers's theatre is bigger than the Hammersmith Odeon, the amplification appears no more forceful than a pub juke box. 'Actually, my show is quite loud,' said Rogers. 'But it's a different kind of loud from what you might hear someplace else; it's not bass notes, it's padded out with lush strings.'

It seems to English tastes as if the theatre owners have vied with each other to build the tackiest place. The Japanese fiddle player, Shoji Tabuchi, who, in true gold rush tradition, turned up in the town from Tokyo with dollars 500 10 years ago, has a million-dollar gold-encrusted ladies' loo in his theatre, designed by his wife. Andy Williams spent dollars 11m on his modernist concrete bunker of a theatre.

'Andy got us confused,' said Dale, who makes a tidy business driving tourists through Branson in old military vehicles. 'When his place was going up we thought he was building the biggest out-house in the Ozarks.'

But Kenny Rogers insists these are modest endeavours, in keeping with the Calvinist attitude that pervades the town. 'It's important not to out-glitz this place,' he said, with a dollars 70,000 chandelier twinkling in the foyer behind him. 'If you think my theatre's fancy, you obviously haven't been to Vegas.'

Indeed, this is probably the best-value town in America. You can eat as much as you like in most of the restaurants for no more than dollars 5. And to eat as much as they like is what folk do. Bulging stomachs and elephantine hips need mountains of fuel to sustain them; crawfish pie, turkey gumbo and fried chicken are consumed by the truckload. 'I swear I once seen a man lining up at a buffet with a satellite dish to fill with food,' said Jim Stafford.

And, just as you can eat cheaply and stay at budget hotels (it is hard to find anywhere charging more than dollars 30 a night), you can be entertained royally for less than the cost of a London cinema ticket. To see Kenny Rogers costs as little as dollars 8.

'Folk can come here and take in a show for a third, a quarter of the price of Vegas,' Rogers said. 'And it's a great show, an all- round entertainment. You gotta make it for families. Them Home Alone law suits scared the shit out of folk; they know they gotta take the kids with them on vacation. We can't out-price these people. I can afford to play here because I own the place. I work on reduced rates. I guess you can call me the loss leader, like they have in supermarkets.'

Rogers has done very neatly out of Branson. Now, with his partners who own Silver Dollar City, he is planning expansion. By the end of 1996 they hope to have finished a dollars 100m development on the shores of the delightful Table Rock Lake. It will be a theme park based around an ersatz Mississippi river port, full of air-conditioned shops and eat- all-you-fancy diners, complete with a 600-seat show-boat.

The land has been bought, the contracts have been signed, but quite what they will do with their by-products has yet to be finalised. On KY3, the local television station, the biggest news at the moment is Branson's sewage. The town, bursting out of its infrastructure, simply has too much with which to cope, and is looking to spread its sludge on fields up to 100 miles away. Local pressure groups, brassed off with Branson's muck, reckon that if the town is making so much money, it can keep its slurry to itself.

'Things like that worry me,' said Jim Stafford. 'I don't think we can take much more expansion. Some theatres are struggling already. The fact is, there's more and more people coming in trying to take a slice of the pie. All that can happen is that it gets thinner for everyone.'

None of this worried John Dean, a young Elvis impersonator who, every evening after the shows have finished, plays in a motel car park off the back of a pick up truck.

'Thank y'all,' he said to his audience of three. 'Today a parking lot. Tomorrow my very own theatre in Branson.'

(Photograph omitted)

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