I saw an interview with Willy Nelson where someone asked if he ever played Branson, Missouri. His immediate response was, “No,” and a vigorous shake of his head. He explained that audiences were “different” there. Having visited Branson recently I think I understand Willy’s reaction.
Branson seems to be diametrically opposed to itself. On one hand it is a beautiful part of the world: leaves changing colors, clear skies, streams winding through scenic cliffs. On the other hand, it is home to some of the tackiest buildings in the world: a recreation of Titanic running into an iceberg, King Kong scaling a sky scraper, Andy William’s Moon River Grill. The attitude of Branson also seems a bit contradictory. There was blatant patriotism on display, but several of the most popular attractions are foreign. Small town charm smothered by tourist commercialism. There was a slight tension to the place that is hard to explain.
My Aunt described one of the shows as, “Dolly Parton’s version of Medieval Times.” The fact that such a sentence could exist and make sense...but, seriously, that sort of sums it up. Las Vegas in the woods. But with no booze. Then there are the audiences. Willy is, no doubt, used to laidback beer-drinking good ol’ boys. Branson features a lot of retiree Church groups who splurge on ice tea. I wasn’t miserable in Branson, but I wasn’t quite comfortable there either. Imagine the South without hospitality. Or booze.
Then again, perhaps the contradiction lies within me. I would never say I need alcohol to have a good time, but clearly I missed it. I love tackiness, patriotism, and ice tea—why am I suddenly a snob about them? Perhaps, I just prefer such things to be a little more self-aware. (Not necessarily the ice tea, but...) I like Las Vegas because Las Vegas is proudly tacky. Las Vegas managed to make marble tacky and yet shows it off with élan. Branson has wrapped itself up in Americana so tightly that it seems to have missed the fact that it no longer resembles down-to-Earth America. Even as I criticize, however, I am aware that there were many parts of my Branson trip I thoroughly enjoyed. Below the bizarre exterior, there was quality. The restaurant didn’t have a beer list, but it did have the amazing goodness that is fried green tomatoes. The show might have been in a ridiculous building and have had a ridiculous premise, but it was a good show. The Titanic museum might be in a building made to look like the ship ramming into a papier-mâché iceberg, but it is a worthwhile museum. (Trust me, just get past the front door.) So why the hesitation in saying Branson is great place to visit?
Am I just too cool for Branson? Have I wrapped myself so tightly in my chic liberal merlot-drinking ways that I can’t enjoy something that doesn't fit into my preset notions of enjoyment? I’m choosing to think, no. I had fun, I took pictures, I bought the souvenir magnet. I tried to get as much out of the vacation as I would any other place in the world. I would even go back to Branson—no, really. Now that I’m a little more prepared for what to expect, I would pack my own bottle of wine, and enjoy this different type of kitsch for what it’s worth. Even if Willy and I happen to think other places are a little more worthwhile.