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  • robertfarago1

What’s Old is New (Branson Missouri)

I left Eureka Springs after two days. That's the longest I've gone without puffing a stogie in a [non-Rocky Patel] decade. Turns out the opening hours sign outside Eureka’s White River Tobacco Company (above) was like the Pirate Code: more of a guideline than a commitment.

Guiding my big ass bike out of Eureka was a ballroom blitz. I mean, backroad bliss. Boogie? That too. My nicotine craving kept Fritz's straight six on the boil as we careened through corners and slammed thought straights. Two-hours of exfiltration exhilaration.

Destination: Branson, Missouri. More specifically, Hollister. Not for effortlessly cool clothing. Beelining the Bimmer to Ember's Cigar Lounge, just outside of The Live Music Capital of the World. A claim Branson shares with Austin, but no one seems to mind...

I was more than a little surprised to open the cigar lounge's door to discover a "We Stand with Israel" banner occupying pride of place over Ember's central arch. The Wandering Jew was home! Temporarily. Long enough to smoke My [Heavenly] Father's cigars and check out Branson's rep for musical diversion.

Branson's First Family

I grabbed a Branson show times pamphlet, checked into a seedy motel across the street and considered my options. Surveying the flotilla of cruise ship-style musical medleys and Elvis tributes on offer, I decided to go Old School: Presley's Country Jubilee. And not because it has "jew" in the title.

The Presleys are Branson's OG musical troupe. The allegedly Elvis-related family started performing for tourists 74 years ago, showcasing their musical talents in the Talking Rocks Cavern.

Yes, a cave. Before 1910, before Forsyth Dam enabled electric amplification, cave acoustics were the only way to entertain large groups of people. The Underground Theater was one of several such venues, known for dripping water, flying bats and scurrying rats.

In 1958, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Table Rock Dam. With 800 miles of new shoreline, Branson adjacent Table Rock Lake was a sportsman's paradise. Tourism exploded.

In '67, the Presleys built Branson's first performing arts theater. A modest metal building on Highway 76. And then...

In 1991, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes ran a feature on Branson called "Sound of Music." It set off the sound of cash registers, ushering-in Branson's Golden Era of big name in-residence country music and pop music entertainers.

Today's Presley Theater is a testimony to that time: a 1000-seat venue on a strip chock-a-block with smaller competing venues, chain hotels and restaurants. What didn't change: the Presley show's basic recipe.

Big Clayton

My evening’s entertainment began at the upstairs pre-show gospel sing-a-long. The crowd joining me on the rock hard pews was exactly as expected: old as sin, whiter than printer paper and god-fearing Christian.

Big Clayton provided the patter, hammering on a piano with enough force to make me reach for my noise-cancelling iPods. They diminished the volume but not the pace of Clayton's seamless blend of gospel’s greatest hits, corny jokes and heart-tugging memories of growing up a preacher's son.

I'm not a huge fan of songs about washing in the blood of Christ, but I appreciated Big Clayton's finger-flying virtuosity.

That said, his routine was, well, routine. After over 200 performances per year for over a dozen years, the self-confessed ADHD sufferer was clearly going through the motions.

The same could be said for the main show: a combination of cornpone humor, gospel, the greatest hits of country, a touch of bluegrass and some lite rock and roll. Finished with a patriotic poem about the flag and a veterans "stand be acknowledged" moment.

The Presley Jubilee was the countriest, spangliest, whitest thing I've ever seen. All white performers, all white audience, all white songs. Other than the bedazzled costumes, the three blond singers’ roots provided the only color.

But Holy Moly, can the Presley family and their colleagues sing and play! If Texan-born guitarist and singer Tim Gregg ever releases a solo album, I'm streaming. Like all members of the extended Presley family, his performance was both pro forma and immaculate.

The Rest of Branson

Branson is no longer the Branson of the Osmonds or the Gattling Brothers. The city's venues aren't large enough to provide enough lucre to lure today's country stars. Branson's remaining star attraction? The recently un-retired comedian Yakov Smirnoff (né Yakov Naumovich Pokhis).

Branson’s music-loving repeat fans are heading for the final curtain. The town fathers are aware. They're repositioning the area to appeal to mid-western families looking to enjoy the great outdoors: golf, fishing, hiking, biking, that sort of thing.

Given the Ozarks' astounding natural beauty and Branson's improving infrastructure (courtesy Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris), I reckon the transition will be a success. Especially amongst the well-fed pro-Trump Bible Belters within driving distance.

As for The Wandering Jew, any city with a handsome, well-stocked cigar bar that supports my spiritual homeland and affords talented musicians a regular gig gets my seal of approval.

Next stop: Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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Jun 08

Thanks for the report on Branson. I've long wondered about the place. Doesn't sound like I need to put it on my bucket list. While you're in Hot Springs, you might want to read or listen to Stephen Hunter's novel, Hot Springs. As a gun guy, you probably read it years ago, but it might be fun to read it again on location.

Jun 13
Replying to

At the moment, I'm not staying anywhere long enough to read a book in situ. But noted and logged!

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