[Books & Culture, March/April 2008]
On the road, shuttling between airports and motels, I sent my daughter an email: “I’m on my way to Branson, Missouri. They say it’s like Las Vegas, but for Christians over fifty.” She wrote back, “I can’t even begin to imagine what that means.”
I could; I imagined it would be laughable and hokey. (You could point out that I am a Christian over fifty and should get off my high horse, but I would only blink at you.) This little town of 6,000 in the southwest corner of Missouri is set in the broad, undulating hills of the Ozark Mountains, where the view is beguiling in every direction. But what draws visitors is “the strip,” five miles of theaters that blaze the night with brilliance until around 11:00 pm, when everyone is snug in bed at the Red Roof Inn or the Best Western. Branson’s biggest stars are primarily folks you don’t hear much about any more, like Yakov Smirnoff (whose mid-80’s shtick was based on comparing America favorably with Russia: “What a country!”) or Andy Williams, who began his solo career in 1952. In 2007, Williams did a month of Branson performances with Glen Campbell, and nearly three months with Charo.
The names may have a hint of mothballs on the page, but it’s high-energy on the stage. There is plenty of genuine talent in Branson, and performers work hard, many of them doing three shows a day. Visitors can do many more than that, and someone determined to sample as many as possible could start with the Dixieland Breakfast Show at 8:00 a.m., leave for Breakfast with Mark Twain at 9:00, drop by Yakov’s act at 9:30, get to “Celebrate America” at 10:00, and slide into violinist Shoji Tabuchi’s palatial theater at 10:30. When you stumble out two hours later there will just be time to visit the Veteran’s Memorial Museum, the Butterfly Palace and Rainforest Adventure, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, the World’s Largest Toy Museum, God and Country Inspirational Gardens, the half-scale replica of the Titanic, and to take a whirl around the 60-acre theme park, Silver Dollar City. Refreshed, head into magician Kirby VanBurch’s show at 2:00, at 3:00 see the Osmonds (not Donnie and Marie, but there are plenty of other Osmonds), at 4:30 get a big ol’ dinner and a show at Dolly Parton’s Dixieland Stampede, at 7:00 take in the Penny Gilley show, and at 7:30 see comedian Jim Stafford (surely you remember his 1973 novelty hit, “Spiders and Snakes”). Almost everyone is back on stage for an 8:00 p.m. performance, as well as Mel Tillis, the Gatlin Brothers, the New Shanghai Circus, American Bandstand Theater, and dozens of other less familiar acts.
Yet Branson itself is constructed on a very modest scale. Like a resort town, it has only as many year-round residents as necessary to meet the tourists’ needs, so the infrastructure is slight. For comparison, picture the last time you drove to a theme park like DisneyWorld or Six Flags. When you were approaching the highway exit, how many lanes were there going in each direction? As you approach Silver Dollar City, a theme park that sees up to 20,000 visitors a day in summer, the number of lanes going in each direction is: one. Well, there’s a turning lane in the middle. The theater-packed “strip” is the same. It’s congested and slow, but get a couple of blocks off the strip and traffic disappears. There is pretty much nothing in Branson except tourists, shows, and the cast and crew who keep the shows going. It’s still a genuinely small town.
Such homey dimensions are unquestionably part of the appeal, and not just for tourists. The compelling thing about Branson for performers is that they can get off the road. As Mel Tillis put it, “You can go to church every Sunday and put your underwear in the same drawer every night.” Audiences come to them, rather than the other way round, and many performers build their own eponymous theaters to make themselves easy to find. Branson is reputed to be the nation’s second most popular drive-to destination, and those driving in (or being driven, on tour buses) tend to have gray hair. They also tend to be conservative, and prefer entertainment that is clean; as Jim Stafford said, “You’re not going to walk into a Branson theater and see ‘Equus.’”
It’s a patriotic town, too. I visited over Veterans’ Day Weekend, and at each show I attended there was a moment when veterans in the audience were invited to stand and receive applause. The guy sitting next to me at the Shoji Tabuchi show said, “If you’re a Vietnam vet and nobody ever said ‘Thank you,’ it’s great.”
Branson is also recognizably evangelical, and that, combined with its patriotism and old-fashioned style, make it a laughing stock to cultural elites. In his scholarly book, “Holy Hills of the Ozarks: Religion and Tourism in Branson, Missouri,” Aaron K. Ketchell provides some samples of the sneers Branson is used to receiving. New York Times book reviewer Joe Queenan called Branson a “cultural penal colony” and “Hades-by-the-Ozarks.” Travel author Arthur Frommer deplored Branson’s “fundamentalist, sectarian faith,” which he likened to a “physical assault.” Such contempt may be why Branson, despite its significant rank among tourist destinations, has been generally ignored by scholars of popular culture and religion. When Ketchell referred to the lack of research on Branson during his interview for a position at a religious studies department, the interviewer responded bluntly, “That’s because most scholars don’t like evangelicals.” Ketchell decided to fill the gap.
I don’t expect “Holy Hills of the Ozarks” will join the crowded shelves at the Branson Tourism Center, because Ketchell is handy with phrases like “counterhegemonic cultural contestation.” But he has an interesting tale to tell, for the town has changed mightily over the years.
Branson’s initial charm was not spandex and sequins, but nature—the broad, undulating hills of the Ozark Mountains. A century ago, in 1907, the quiet town was suddenly thrust into the spotlight when Harold Bell Wright’s novel “The Shepherd of the Hills” became a bestseller. The Shepherd in Wright’s story is not Jesus, but a mysteriously sad older gentleman—a famous preacher, it eventually turns out—who wanders into the Branson hill country one day and accepts the humble work of tending sheep. He’s in a position to dispense general wisdom and to do a “My Fair Lady” job on lovely but unpolished “Sammy” Lane. The story is a melodrama touching on unwed motherhood and mountain gangs, but an underlying theme is the pristine beauty of the setting and the robust health of its residents. There is a hint of the era’s fashionable eugenics when Wright dwells lovingly on Sammy’s radiant health and strength—she’s described in terms that would suit a racehorse—and contrasts her with the shrimpiness of her city-bound fiancé, Ollie.
“The Shepherd of the Hills” was a blockbuster of its time, selling over 2 million copies. Some readers were so taken with the characters of Sammy Lane, Old Matt, Aunt Mollie, and the rest that they journeyed into the Ozarks, braving difficult travel and rustic facilities, in order to glimpse the prototypes. And once tourists started turning up, residents were happy to adopt characters’ names and explain how they served as inspirations to Howard Bell Wright.
Good country people were only part of the attraction; the glorious hills exerted their own pull. Poet and lyricist Dow Tate wrote, during his 1913 visit, “Here the Ozark flower-laden air supplied the breath that in the beginning helped to make man a living soul. The bubbling mountain springs filled his thirsting veins with the nectar of the gods…The fountains of power and life were supplied with wholesome viands from the hillside gardens that smile here and there like so many patches in the human heart, cleared away for fruitful deeds.” Presbyterian Hill camp and conference center was built in 1913 to offer visitors a chance to imbibe that healthful ambiance, though folks had to be fairly healthy in the first place to climb the 330 steps that led up the bluff to its front door.
Adventurous visitors could go about as far in the other direction, too. Missouri is the “Cave State,” and the largest cave entrance in the U.S. is found at Marvel Cave, Branson’s earliest attraction (also its most lasting, since the unused acreage above it eventually bloomed into Silver Dollar City, where a ticket now includes a tour of the cave). Henry Lynch, the first owner to open the cave to the public, dubbed the immense subterranean space, 400 feet long by 225 feet wide, the “Cathedral Room,” and by 1894 he and his daughters were conducting tours. Access was by “rickety ladders” (so said a 1922 visitor), a steep 200 foot climb straight down; Ketchell reproduces a 1950 postcard photo that is distinctly unnerving. Lynch continually improved his property, building cabins for visitors, improving cave access, and even installing a grand piano in the “Cathedral Room” so that his daughter Miriam could entertain guests. That combination of elegance and rusticity—a grand piano in a vast dark cave—is an earmark of Branson attractions right from the start.
Later, about mid-century, Branson dwellers would embrace a “hillbilly” identity (it was from Ketchell’s book that I learned that the term came from Scots-Irish immigrants’ pride in Prince William of Orange; his supporters were called “Billy Boys”). A number of “Beverly Hillbillies” episodes were filmed at Silver Dollar City, supposedly Jed Clampett’s home town. In 1959 a local Branson family, the Mabes, saw an opportunity and began putting on a country music and comedy show for tourists. (They still do it, or rather their now-grown children and grandchildren do. The Baldknobbers Jamboree Show hits the boards at 8:00 pm six nights a week). Other country music shows sprang up, and Branson began to get a name as a performance capital; it now offers more live music than Nashville (where producing and recording is the thing).
In the 80’s, some noteable country names began to arrive—Roy Clark, Boxcar Willie, Mickey Gillis—and where there’s country there will soon be sequins. What was once typified by the goofy Mabe character Droopy Drawers now includes magicians and ostrich races, dry ice and black lights, million-dollar restrooms, and performers sailing across the stage on wires. Branson now hosts seven million visitors per year, and has more theater seats than Broadway. It’s a long way from there back to Sammy Lane.
Over the years Branson has evolved into something the original boosters never foresaw. For one thing, though the hills have always been praised for their spiritual power in terms like Dow Tate’s above, the theological foundation has undergone dramatic change. Harold Bell Wright was a Social Gospel proponent, whom his son said “came to a little different concept of God, not so much as a personal entity you could talk to…but as a great overall power.” The author who was in some senses Wright’s successor, Otto Ernest Rayburn, vigorously promoted the Ozarks till his death in 1960; his religious views were “syncretic,” Ketchell says, and “combined ancient mythology, indistinct Native American mysticism, and other vaguely spiritual stances.” What would those men have thought of Branson’s current climate of cheerful evangelicalism?
The early tourists sought an invigorating experience of the pristine hills; current tourists shuffle in and out of theaters. There are sidewalks in Branson, but no one uses them; everyone is inside cars, creeping down the strip at five miles an hour. The first tourists sought to meet the humble, honest residents of Wright’s “Mutton Hollow;” current tourists interact with virtually nobody except waitresses, or performers during post-show autograph time. Such changes are not necessarily bad, but they sure are different, and I wondered how Branson’s self-understanding has evolved, as the means by which it provides renewal and inspiration has changed over the years.
This would have been a fascinating topic for Ketchell to examine, but he fails to focus on it clearly. It’s hard for him to see the ways Branson has changed because, I think, he finds Branson baffling to start with. He recognizes it as representing one side of a culture war (the other side, it appears) and focuses on that to the exclusion of anything else. In his introduction he describes Branson as “a national hub for popularly mediated antimodernism.” Furthermore, “This sentiment has been expressed through an omnipresent pitting of upright rural life against often contemptuous urban existence; promotions of unwavering patriotism against a larger culture supposedly unloosed from national pride; visions of unified nuclear families within a world struggling to preserve this elemental social unit; and endorsements of the foundational nature of Christian belief meant to combat perceived secularization.”
Ketchell explains that he began studying Branson because his thesis advisor specialized in Marian apparitions, and the topic of folk religion drew his interest. (Of his own background, he says that his family “has for many generations been staunchly Catholic.”) As he thought about a past visit to the Ozarks, “I recalled that in that region one could not find statues of Mary or paintings of St. Sebastian skewered with arrows, yet its religious attractions were comparable mixtures of sacred and secular.” (I am stumped as to how a statue of Mary is a “mixture of sacred and secular;” I can only guess that Ketchell considers art intrinsically secular because it partakes of the material world.) He goes on, “In addition, they fused contemporary consumer culture with religiosity in a way that mimicked the descriptions of many Catholic extraecclesiastical practices. But in a fashion that confounded my understanding of the Reformation, they also seemed primarily Protestant in tone. Finding that these sites befuddled conceptions of the iconoclastic and world-denying nature of Calvinism, I became determined to grapple with a perceived scholarly lacuna—the apparent disregard for popular expressions of Protestantism and their seeming Ozark manifestations.”
As someone said, “That sentence should be taken out and shot.” But if Mark Twain could catalogue “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” I’ll try to be more specific. To start with, Ketchell has the sociologist’s tic of qualifying statements with the proviso that they are only observations, not assertions, even when this habit makes no sense (“seeming Ozark manifestations”). His understanding of Protestantism is generally odd, as could be glimpsed above. In discussing Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” he explains that “Many of Weber’s claims rest on the doctrine of predestination. According to this principle, individuals have fallen from grace and thereby lost their ability to influence salvation. Yet despite this somber condition, people still longed to know their fate and to at least partially validate their claims of election. With a lack of self-confidence being equated with insufficient faith, intense worldly activity became a way to bolster assurance.” Ketchell seems to think that this Protestant insistence on “intense worldly activity” means that there can be no approved respite from work. Thus leisure, and by extension tourism, are dubious pursuits for Protestants.
It’s an odd premise for him to hold. Though Puritan or Calvinist asceticism may have been historically indispensable to the formation of Weber’s “spirit of capitalism,” there’s no reason to assume that they continue in force today. (Indeed, Weber, writing a century ago, believed these religious influences had already waned.) Ketchell speaks in his introduction of his interest in “popular religiosity” and his discovery that “there was a body of academics seriously interested in considering paraliturgical devotions and willing to examine the concerns of the folk with earnestness and empathy.” That sincerity makes this misperceived premise all the more puzzling. I have never met a Christian who believed that his faith forbade taking a vacation. Perhaps Ketchell’s impression of Christian beliefs was formed by reading sociological texts rather than by talking to Christians directly.
Even stranger, Ketchell seems to think that Christianity forbids perceiving God in nature. The tradition of rejoicing in the beauty of Creation goes back to Psalm 8, and incalculably further. But Ketchell seems to think that the conjoining of God and nature was forced by promoters of tourism, in order to make tourism spiritually palatable. “Nineteenth century Americans who inaugurated national tourism found justification for their leisure through veiling seemingly secular experiences of nature in a language of religiously grounded reverence and wonder.” He goes on, “Nature idolatry wrapped in a Christian idiom is evident in a wide range of Branson attractions.” For example, a plaque inscribed with Psalm 12:1 (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”) is “stationed prominently above the outlook” (the view from a picture window at Silver Dollar City) “to reinforce this relationship between geographic place and transcendence.” Again, he could have gained a much more accurate understanding of how Christians view nature, and why appreciating its beauty is not considered “idolatry,” by asking almost anyone he found in Branson.
Ketchell states that “Branson’s tourism industry has utilized religious rhetoric to imbue landscape with a sense of inviolability grounded in utopian imaginings of the human-topography relationship.” It uses “consumer culture to express theologico-geographic sentiments.” At hymn-sings in Silver Dollar City’s rustic chapel, “it is easy to characterize the brand of religiosity offered at the site as Reformation-derived and often Manichean.” (More than once I felt like borrowing Inigo Montoya’s line from “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)
Mani pops up again in the Veterans’ Memorial Museum. Captured Axis materials there are accompanied by a note stating they are displayed as trophies of war, and intend no endorsement of Nazi views. In this Ketchell perceives “a Manichean world of absolute right and unconditional wrong—one that draws thick lines of ethical separation between religious and non-religious, country and city, and old-fashioned and modern.” Yet later on, when writing about a protest Branson residents held against events involving the KKK and Christian Identity groups, Ketchell seems to approve. Perhaps “thick lines of ethical separation” are a sometime thing.
Ketchell devotes a chapter to Silver Dollar City, a theme park which has a Williamsburg dimension, aiming to reproduce aspects of 1880’s Ozark culture. Over a hundred artisans make candles, blow glass, weave baskets, and demonstrate other skills along the park’s winding streets and under its abundant trees. Ketchell admits that the park features “immaculate surroundings protected by sincere conservationists,” and that it has attracted awards from Audubon International and the National Arbor Day Foundation. Nevertheless, he perceives that here, as at Disneyworld, the real purpose of a theme park’s Main Street is “to be a reembrace of a fabled public square prior to civil rights battles, ethnic divisiveness, or the muddling of conventional gender roles.” Yet I saw no hint of racism in Silver Dollar City, or Branson as a whole (where a Japanese violinist is one of the biggest stars). And it’s hard to see “conventional gender roles” in a town where Mom is likely to be onstage twice a day, singing and dancing in tights.
Granted, Branson is thoroughly pro-family; a random stack of brochures tout a high proportion of family acts, such as the Gatlin Brothers, the Lennon Sisters, the Osmonds, the Hughes Brothers, the Presleys, the Duttons , the Brett Family, the Haygoods, and the Branson Brothers (I’m not sure if the “Brothers” are some or all of the 8 young people on the cover, representing a variety of genders and races). But there’s nothing ominous in this. Branson is full of family acts because it’s where acts settle to raise their families. In Ketchell’s determination to see “conventional gender roles,” he misses seeing the hardworking women in these and other shows. He insists instead that Branson promotes “a value structure that cherishes the procreative impulse, sanctions male authority, locates femaleness within the realm of childbearing and nurture, and stamps these dictates with a divine imprimatur that bestows them with a sense of naturalness rather than social construction.” Yet I was unable to find any reference to childbearing, or even to gender roles, in Branson. They are culture-war bogeys from thirty years ago. Ketchell notes that Mormons fit in well because Branson “prizes extended families, heralds procreative inclinations, and values temperance.” Later he states that “[T]he unbridled acquisition of offspring in Branson is not solely limited to biological breeding. Some musical families have augmented their ranks through the channels of Kid Save International,” a Christian nonprofit that assists adoptions from Russia and Central Asia. Somehow it sounds like a *bad* thing.
I know you’re saying, “Wait, go back to ‘heralds procreative inclinations’,” but first let’s wrap up Ketchell’s prosecution of the culture war. All through the book he is caught between, on the one hand, his perception that Christian faith is oppressively forced on Branson visitors, and, on the other hand, the evidence. He perceives that “a visit to one of Branson’s musical venues involves much more than just enjoying variety acts heavily laced with pious song. The medium and the message are intricately bound together there and intend not only to reinforce the values and beliefs of people who are already Christian but also to recruit the nonbelievers by offering the possibility of conversion mediated by experiences of leisure.”
Yet show biz professionals keep saying otherwise. “[G]ospel is hard to sell in Branson,” says Phyllis Gotrock, director of the Branson Gospel Music Association, who ought to know. Ketchell writes, “Like all [Branson] boosters throughout the last century, [travel director Don] Gabriel avowed that regionally dependent evangelism should not be blatantly preachy.” Barbara Mandrell states that she keeps her faith low key, perhaps limited to “introducing a gospel song into a secular show…Do you think they would have tuned into me had I been on a ‘gospel’ music show?” Overall, Ketchell admits that “Industry experts …agree that Calvinistic and transparently proselytizing recreational offerings do not result in profits.” He even gives some examples: the Collins Family’s program of entirely religious music ran only four years in Branson, and the all-gospel Blackwood Singers failed to draw big crowds. Bill Gaither opened a 2000-seat theater, and closed it before two months were out. (It seems that folks like gospel music, they just don’t think of it as entertainment, something you ought to pay for.) A musical presentation of Jesus’ life, “The Promise,” should be “enjoying great material success. In reality, however, ‘The Promise’ has struggled to stay solvent.”
Ketchell sums up, “[P]atrons want their mix of religion and ostensibly secular entertainment finely mingled—a desire that may account for the failure of many explicitly gospel acts.” But two pages later he’s having doubts, and feels sure that instead it’s the secular stars who can’t make it in Branson. Though some performers obediently fulfill the “call for Christian-infused Branson entertainment,” others—Merle Haggard, for example, or Wayne Newton—have “either failed to buy into the ‘Branson style’ or offered performances in defiance of this template—actions that have led to their swift departure.”
He suspects that, if Christian performers keep their faith low-key, it’s just because it’s part of a scheme. Theater-goers “will not encounter an explicit missionary presentation,” yet “all local acts imply [that] Christ is the fabric of the music and the message.” It’s true that not all shows have “overt Christian tones. However, lack of explicit religiosity does not preclude a forthright codification of appropriate ideals.” One “may not easily identify a theological intent” in the old TV show “Hee Haw,” but performer Roy Clark is an admitted Christian. At Silver Dollar City “placards do not adorn the grounds in protest of abortion or homosexuality or in support of school prayer,” yet there is a notable “focus on families” (well, it *is* a theme park). The park has a “thorough yet muted integration of Christian morality” and has “unwritten (yet thoroughly scripted) ‘sermons.’” Ketchell presents an anecdote in which a park employee cheers a disabled child and asks her to please her parents and the Lord. This serves “to further substantiate the ways that employees are compelled to provide Christian witness.” So things are worse than they first seemed: Bransonites are not only Christian imperialists, they’re *sneaky* about it.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, the writing is just plain strange. There are many cases where it’s a matter of seizing on the wrong word, and breaking the rule by which Twain abjured Cooper: “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” So we read that something is “put through a cleansing wringer”—no, a wringer squeezes water out of something already cleansed. Someone “stumbled on the bedrock”—no, you either stumble on a rock or build on bedrock. (Same thing goes for “Christ is the fabric of the music.” Block that metaphor!) Fifties-style nostalgia performances “evade the stings and arrows of the past rather than trying to heal them;” Hamlet’s phrase is not applicable here, and don’t try to heal arrows. The Precious Moments Chapel at Carthage, Missouri, is a loose approximation of the Sistine Chapel, not a “loose replica,” which suggests bolts and ceiling panels crashing to the floor. Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber are not “pious plants,” they’re produce, perhaps pious produce, but nothing so leafy as “plants.” Early tourists surely did not seek to become part of Branson “corporeally.” Corrie Ten Boom’s comment that Branson would be blessed is not her “divination.” Ketchell says that Branson is subject to “urbane critiques,” that Wright’s fictional Shepherd confesses “the error of his former urbane ways,” while the book’s other characters must not “embrace urbane ways”—I’m not sure what’s intended here, but it can’t be “urbane.”
Ketchell also has an apparently effortless talent for constructing oxymorons. A performance exhibits “an embrace of physical restraint,” a politician “reproduced the blurring of a line,” Marvel Cave’s “mystical nature remains palpable,” Branson’s Christianity is “a nebulous banner,” Branson offers “regimented leisure,” a Branson writer “tenuously grappled” with tourism, Sunday-only worship imposes “a gamut of…parameters” on life, and there’s that “thorough yet muted integration” above.
And sometimes it’s just tone-deafness. A bible study serves to “underscore the…day’s frivolity,” campers learn “the religious underpinnings of…tribulations,” values are accorded “an exhaustive embrace,” a song may “spawn propitious visions,” a Christmas show is “an avowedly nonconsumptive fete,” and Gary Smalley’s outlook “has bestowed him with much credence.”
In the last chapter, Ketchell warms to his summary: Branson is a “locus of what Thomas Franks calls a ‘backlash’ against progressive culture,” characterized by “anti-intellectual championing, the valorization of idyllic rurality, and a lived religiosity that censures nonpragmatic theologies, elite control over ultimate truth, and the limitation of religious experience to formal sanctuaries.” It’s hard to reconcile such a sinister assessment with the pokey, hokey, endearing little town I saw. Possibly I was just temporarily befuddled by conceptions of the iconoclastic and world-denying nature of Calvinism. I wouldn’t mind visiting again, just to make sure.