FOR most of the
human race, Sept. 21, 1991, was not a day filled with earthshaking news. In
Iraq, Saddam Hussein's government was playing a game of nuclear
cat-and-mouse with United Nations inspectors. In Eastern Europe, the Croats
and the Serbs were trading mortar rounds. And in the Arizona desert, eight
scientists were getting ready to climb into a giant terrarium called
But for a few hundred people working on Nashville's Music Row, the
24-block nerve center of the country-music industry, that Monday probably
will rival the first lunar landing. On that day, the trade publication
Billboard released its chart figures for the following Saturday's issue.
What happened to Billboard's pop-album chart can only be described as a
hurricane in a 10-gallon hat:
Garth Brooks, a plain-spoken young honky-tonker who resembles a fireplug in
a striped shirt, had released an album that debuted at No. 1 on the pop
charts -- something no country album had ever done. Not only did the sudden
and unheralded arrival of "Ropin' the Wind" bump Metallica and
Natalie Cole down to the second and third slots, it also blunted the debut
of the two new Guns N' Roses albums -- the most widely anticipated releases
of the year.
''The day the news came out, we had a party for the whole row -- the
whole Nashville community," says Ed Benson, executive director of the
Country Music Association. "I was standing there among all these
people and my first thought was: 'Where do we go from here?' At the time,
nobody had any idea how long Garth would be there. Still, there was a sense
that we had arrived."
Others on Music Row who make their living spotting country trends
already knew something was happening.
''My kid wouldn't listen to country. He was into whatever was cool with
his peer group -- rap, you name it, but never country," says Frank
Bacus, corporate communications director for the Emerald Entertainment
Group. "One day, he came to me and said, 'Can you get me a Garth
Brooks tape?' I said, 'What for? You can't tape over it.' Somehow it had
become cool at school to listen to Garth Brooks. Now what happened
''As we speak, everybody's still trying to figure out what
happened," says Jerry Crutchfield, a 35-year Nashville veteran who is
executive president of artists and repertoire for Liberty. "My
daughter is a typical college student and mainstream pop listener. She came
to me one day singing this song -- 'Friends in Low Places.' We'd all sensed
this groundswell of interest for maybe two years before that, but that was
a sign that something big had happened."
AT FIRST glance, Brooks is the country music phenomenon. He was the top
artist of 1991, selling a total of 9 million albums. "Ropin' the
Wind," which sold 5 million copies last year, was the best-selling
album of '91 and the fastest-selling country album ever. In January,
Brooks' unprecedented introduction to network television, "This Is
Garth Brooks," gave NBC its highest Friday night ratings in two years.
But Brooks is just the standard-bearer for a reform movement that has
spent the better part of the past five years retooling the way country music
is made and sold. The changes are attracting a new mass audience to a music
that once was thought to be provincial and unsophisticated.
¬… According to Forbes magazine, annual revenue for the
country music industry is $3 billion and climbing.
¬… Thirteen country albums went platinum (denoting sales of
1 million copies) last year -- equal to the three previous years combined.
¬… Last summer, country radio surpassed Top 40 radio in
listener-ship nationwide. The country format is behind only adult-contemporary
and news/talk radio in total listeners.
¬… The Judds' farewell concert was the most successful
pay-per-view cable concert in history, seen in 18.5 million households.
¬… Last fall, in an attempt to shore up its sagging Sunday
night lineup, NBC threw itself into the most feverish fast-track
development in the network's history for "Hot Country Nights,"
the first prime-time country show in more than a decade.
This isn't the first time the mainstream has jumped on the country
bandwagon. Since rockabilly faded from the pop charts in the late '50s, the
pattern of re-discovery has followed a 10-year cycle. In 1969, Johnny Cash
had his own prime-time variety show and a No. 1 album on the Billboard pop
chart (that album would be the last country record to go all the way until
Brooks came along). In 1980, the film "Urban Cowboy" ignited a
craze that was essentially nothing more than "Saturday Night
Fever" with boots and hats. In the wake of "Cowboy,"
Nashville's misguided attempt to woo the mainstream audience with
watered-down pseudo-country songs nearly killed the genre. By 1983, the
saccharine crossover style personified by the likes of Dolly Parton and
Kenny Rogers marked the artistic nadir of country.
Unlike those two booms, this cycle is not an artificial phenomenon
driven by television or film forces far from Nashville. The explosive
growth of the past two years was fueled by the music itself and a
fundamental change in the overall pop music market. This time, Nashville is
determined not to make the same mistakes that were made after "Urban
Cowboy." Says Crutchfield: "We abandoned our roots of pure honest
music to attract a wider audience -- that was the worst mistake. When that
buzz went away, it was like a boom town that went bust. The good news today
is this ain't no boom town. This has been a natural, gradual development
for us. And the interest you see in country today is a permanent
Teens and trailing-edge baby-boomers are the two groups most responsible
for creating the country surge. The new breed of stars they're flocking to
see have everything the old country warhorses did not -- pin-up looks,
outrageous stage presence and relevant lyrics.
''It really hit me when I heard Garth on 'Beverly Hills 90210,' "
says Cyndi Hoelzle, associate editor of country music for the Gavin Report,
a national radio industry trade journal. "Here were these teens -- the
models of coolness -- listening to 'Friends in Low Places.' If you go to a
Clint Black or a Garth show, there are 11- and 13-year-old girls screaming
their lungs out."
People in their late 20s and early 30s who were raised on groups such as
the Eagles and singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne and James Taylor
are beginning to discover country is the closest thing on the radio to
old-time album rock. "We've had a complete generational change during
the last 10 years in country singers and songwriters," says Bill Ivey,
director of the Country Music Foundation. "It's not a huge jump for
people raised on Don Henley or Carole King. They're discovering, maybe for
the first time, that country is adult music to last a lifetime."
The "new" country sound got its start around '85, when artists
such as Randy Travis, George Strait and Ricky Skaggs founded the New
Traditionalist movement that would bring country back to its roots. Their
emphasis on clean, plain instrumentation and straightforward stories about
love, work and home was the model for most of today's young country stars.
"The quality of the songs today is markedly better than anything in the
previous decade," says Bacus. "Everyone here knows that 'A tear
in my beer' just isn't going to cut it anymore."
Nashville's quality obsession coincided with the failure of pop and rock
to hold onto an audience that was turned off by the hyper-testosterone anti-reality
of heavy metal and the drug-dealing, ghetto tales of rap. Even country's
most ardent boosters admit the battle for the mass audience was won, to
some degree, by default: "Country is benefiting from some weakness in
other parts of the music world," says Ivey. "Rock stumbled over
the past few years. And R&B, which had been a main source of pop
ballads, has been crippled by the emergence of rap."
While pop and rock became increasingly distant from the lives of most
Americans, country played on its natural strength -- the ability to tell
stories. Now, the songs are rarely about horse-pucky, pickup trucks and
coon-dogs. Country music, once widely perceived to be a hidebound,
downright reactionary culture, is increasingly a forum for songs that
address issues ranging from illiteracy (Paul Overstreet's "Billy Can't
Read") and domestic violence (Brooks' "The Thunder Rolls")
to the dilemmas of post-feminist women (Reba McEntire's "Is There Life
The last few years have seen the look of country change as much as the
sound. A country concert used to be about as visually exciting as watching
trees grow -- the performers stood stock-still and strummed their guitars.
Costumes and props were either rhinestone-studded or straight off the
"Hee- Haw" set. Now, a generation of new fans who were raised on
rock are turning out for arena-scale country concerts that have all the
trappings of rock: McEntire, the hottest country star on the arena circuit
last year, had more lasers and dry ice than most heavy metal shows. Brooks'
bull-in-a-china-shop antics -- smashing guitars and swinging from light
rigs -- are straight out of the Who's bag of tricks.
Last year was a disastrous season for the concert industry as a whole.
But according to Performance Magazine, in arenas with 7,000 to 13,000 seats
country artists such as the Judds, Travis and Black sold an average of 94
percent of all available tickets, while bankable pop-and-rock staples such
as Whitney Houston, Julio Iglesias and Yes averaged only 78 percent.
Despite all the sweeping changes, the wall between country and pop music
is as high as it ever was. Country is a parallel universe and the
overwhelming sentiment on Music Row is that it should remain so. After
almost a decade, the memories of the Dolly-and-Kenny crossover debacle are
still painfully fresh. No record company wants to endanger an artist's
country credibility to appeal to the fickle pop market. Brooks and the
other members of the "new-hat" pack who have broken into the
upper reaches of the pop charts have done so entirely without pop radio.
''We never say 'crossover' in Nashville anymore," says Crutchfield,
whose Liberty Records roster includes Brooks. "There was a time in the
'80s that was a buzzword. But the position we took with pop radio when Garth
was concerned -- and it was his own decision -- was, 'Thanks, but no
thanks.' " When Liberty chief Jimmie Bowen is asked why he isn't
crossing Garth over to pop radio, he says: "Who needs it? If those
people want Garth, let them come over here and find him."
The future of country music is taking shape in the dining room of a
remodeled Victorian in the heart of Nashville's Music Row. On a recent
Sunday night, a visitor would find Mark Miller of the group Sawyer Brown
sitting at a large oak conference table, answering questions from fans
across North America. Miller's responses are being beamed live via the
Emerald Entertainment Network's satellite system to a potential audience of
4 million people listening on 600 stations across the United States and Canada.
Fans who call the network's toll- free 800 number to talk to their idols or
enter contests for trucks and vacations are walked through a 12-question
phone tree -- the results of which are recorded by a bank of computers in
the adjacent control booth.
Armed with the names, addresses, ages and consumer tastes of a broad
sampling of the country market, Bacus and his team are able to get a
precise, nearly instantaneous read on just who likes what. The 2-month-old
"interactive relational database system" is the key to tailoring
the vast country audience to a specific advertiser's needs.
The Emerald Group's state-of-the-art 56-track recording studio -- a
favorite with everyone from Black to George Strait to Hank Williams Jr. to
Alabama -- is steps away from the old house. In this brave new world, an
artist could theoretically cut a set of tracks in the studio, walk across
the alley, test market the tape to an audience of millions and walk away
with a pin-point profile of which songs are destined to sell to which
A few miles down the freeway from the Emerald Group, another technical
revolution is taking place on the edge of the Opryland USA theme park. The
two cable-TV superstations based at the park, The Nashville Network and
Country Music Television, beam country music videos, lifestyle programming
and even sports to millions of homes nationwide. TNN, owned by Opryland's
parent company, reaches 54 million U.S. households and is ranked fifth in
prime-time ratings among all cable networks. CMT, also partly owned by the
Opryland group, reaches 15.4 million households and is projected to grow to
almost 20 million subscribers by the end of this year. In the Bay Area,
303,000 households receive CMT -- just slightly less than the 335,000
subscribers in the Nashville area. While the current surge in country may
have all the appearances of an overnight success, it's actually the product
of five years' work on Music Row to market country the way General Motors
would market a new minivan. "This was a very calculated move to
provide the product that fits the consumers," says the Country Music
Association's Benson. "CMA undertook a large consumer attitude study
in '85, trying to determine what the future was. . . . We learned consumers
wanted new faces and songs that were more intellectually challenging and
As the country industry succeeds in selling itself, corporations are
finding the music can sell other things. "It started two or three
years ago," says Bacus, "when we started getting the Judds and
Clint Black and K.T. Oslin on 'Oprah' or 'Donahue' or 'Good Morning
America.' That made it much easier for me to pick up the phone and call
Madison Avenue. They knew something was happening or K.T. wouldn't be on
there." It didn't take long for the marketing types to also realize
upscale suburbanites with two cars in the driveway and two gold cards in
their wallet were not listening to rock or rap. (According to CMA figures,
country-radio listeners are more likely to be employed full-time and own
homes than those who listen to adult-contemporary or rock radio.) Today,
the commercial ties range from Travis selling Coke and American Express
cards to the Judds selling Oldsmobiles and Kraft cheese.
IN FEBRUARY, the denizens of Music Row made their annual trek to the Grammy
Awards. They watched as the "album of the year" trophy for 1991
went to Natalie Cole. Brooks, the man who had sold more albums than any
other artist in any category during 1991, was not even nominated.
''The country industry is very, very self-conscious because for
generations it's felt itself put upon by the pop world -- constantly told
it's inferior," says Ivey, who was among those in Radio City Music
Hall that night. "When I think of the inability of the pop
establishment to respond to this fundamental change, it reminds me of the
days at the end of the big-band era -- the denial within the pop industry
when rock 'n' roll came along. These people don't want to recognize what's
happening. After 30 years of pop-rock dominance, we could be at the beginning
of a complete reorganization of the hierarchy of American music. And I'm
not surprised there are people in the pop industry who find that very
A TALE OF TWO MUSIC CITIES
Nashville's a real industry town --
and a schlock-choked tourist mecca
April 3, 1992
TWO travelers board a plane in Nashville. One is a music industry
functionary, the other a country-music-fan tourist. As they compare
notes on what they've seen, they discover they've actually been in two
different cities and two separate eras.
A wrinkle in time and space, perhaps? Such paranormal occurrences
are common . . . in the Nashville Zone. (Cue eerie music, add pedal-steel guitars, fade out.)
''Music City U.S.A." actually is two small, one-industry towns
hidden in a larger metropolis. The Nashville the music industry knows
is Music Row, a 24-block enclave of refurbished Victorian houses that
functions as a command-and-control center for music publishing,
promotion, production and broadcasting. There's an almost palpable
sense of community on the Row. A routine walk around the block to lunch
can lead to sidewalk kibitzing sessions with a half-dozen tour bookers,
record execs, engineers, producers and publicists.
Were it not for the Silver Eagle tour buses parked along 16th and
17th avenues and the victory banners that hang from second-story
windows congratulating stars on their latest hits, Music Row would be
almost indistinguishable from any other upscale redevelopment area.
The other "Music City" -- the one the country fan sees --
is much more of a shrine to past glories than a stage for today's
generation of country artists. With the exception of the Grand Ole Opry
and the Opryland complex that surrounds it, there are few spaces for
live concerts in Music City. Tourist Nashville is a dizzying cattle
drive for the kitsch-tolerant traveler -- a cheese-o-rama roundelay
filled with stars' homes, museums of dubious merit, innumerable gift
shops and a few precious shreds of honest-to-Opry history.
In marketing-speak, Opryland is a "total vacation
destination" -- which means there is little reason for a tourist
to ever leave the sprawling development, which includes a theme park,
golf course, museums, theaters, broadcast facilities for two cable
networks and the Opry itself. The Opryland Hotel, a 1,891-room
monstrosity, is a world unto itself -- complete with a radio station
and two-acre indoor tropical jungle.
While Opryland is of negligible value to the country-music pilgrim,
a visit to the Opry is an absolute must. In 1974, the Opry, the
longest-running broadcast in radio history, abandoned the Ryman
Auditorium in downtown Nashville's seedy Lower Broadway area and moved
to Opryland. The new Opry sits across a parking lot from TNN and CMT,
the two country cable networks that are to the future of country what
the Opry was to its past.
A generation ago, long before cable networks, satellite up- links
and fancy videos, the Opry was the way to sell an act. With a
50,000-watt clear-channel signal that could rattle windows across
almost half the continent, an artist could play the Opry on a Saturday
and then go out on the road and be assured of a month's worth of packed
houses in the hinterlands. Today, the venerated institution resembles a
retirement-home barn-dance. The Opry needs young stars (29-year-old
Travis Tritt is the Opry's youngest member) much more than the young
stars need the Opry.
Twice each Friday and Saturday night, 4,400 fans (most able to
remember when radio was the family entertainment vehicle) pack the
tiers of orange benches to watch the familiar ritual unfold in front of
the WSM-650-AM red-barn backdrop. One by one, the principal
seat-holders in the Pantheon of Greats take the stage: There's Porter
Wagoner with his massive silver pompadour and spangled suit, looking
every inch the super-cool closet rock 'n' roller. There's bluegrass
king Bill Monroe. And there's Nashville's own grizzled version of Remus
and Romulus -- Roy Acuff and Hank Snow.
Between the homey ad segments plugging BC Headache Powder and Dollar
General Stores, the floor producers manage to get 26 acts on and off
the stage in a single session. The guest stars on a recent Saturday
broadcast ran the gamut from Ronnie Milsap to Diamond Rio. Seeing
Wagoner standing arm-in-arm with the young guns from Diamond Rio sums
up the ultimate value of the Opry -- a beloved institution that ensures
continuity from one generation of country stars to the next.
Across the road from Opryland is an outpost of the Ernest Tubb
Record Shop chain. Each Saturday night, the back room of the shop is
the site of a ritual that goes back almost as far as the Opry -- the
Midnight Jamboree. Back in the Ryman era, after the Opry went off the
air, performers would go down the block to Tubb's shop to jam into the
wee hours. When the Opry moved out to the beltway, the Jamboree came
The free, informal broadcast has the feel of a clandestine revival
meeting. Opry-goers who ducked out early file through the store and
cram into a cement-floored room furnished with folding chairs and
little else. At 12:15, there's a radio playing in the background and
the crowd of about 45 hear the Opry wrapping up. And there on the
crowded stage, looking like a million bucks under the harsh glare of
the fluorescent shop lights, is Charlie Louvin, the greatest white
gospel singer this side of Heaven.
Louvin is wearing a silver belt buckle the size of a salad plate. The
refracted glare off that buckle sends a flash of white light around the
room every time he turns to reach for another Pall Mall King. A sound
man at the side of the plywood stage counts down the seconds, waiting
for the Opry broadcast to hand off to the Jamboree. Five, four, three,
two . . . Louvin and the band jump hard on the opening bars of Hank
Williams' "Walking the Floor Over You" and the little room
begins to stir.
Louvin steps up to the mike for another Williams classic, "I'm
So Lonesome I Could Cry." Somewhere right around that lonesome
whippoorwill, his voice -- strong and clear as a shot of Jackson County
moonshine -- rises to a near-falsetto. For a moment, the grand old man
shuts his eyes and drifts away to another place.
After 50 years in the industry and more Midnight Jamborees than even
he can recall, Louvin is proof that country music builds its heroes to
last a lifetime.
Since the Opry pulled out, there's not much left to see at the Ryman
Auditorium. Better to skip the tour of the 101-year- old brick
tabernacle and head straight across the alley to Tootsie's Orchid
Lounge. In the old days, Tootsie's was the Opry's dressing room annex
and de facto backstage watering hole. Space was so tight at the Ryman,
stars would cool their boot-heels in the bar before dashing across the
alley for the curtain call. Today, the battered, blackened walls of
Tootsie's are layered with enough history -- album covers, publicity
stills, autographed cocktail napkins, concert posters and business
cards -- to fill a half-dozen halls of fame. Tootsie's probably is the
only museum in Nashville where historical perspective is dispensed with
a can of Bud and a hearty exhortation to "go up back and look
No visit to Nashville is complete without a day trip to Hendersonville
to see Twitty City, the last word in celebrity shrines. Not content
with a mere museum and gift shop, Twitty actually has put himself on
display, opening his family compound and home to fans.
The multi-media tour begins with a set of dioramas depicting
Twitty's childhood and goes on to present all 55 of his No. 1 gold
records, 1/10-scale models of his tour buses, his pea-soup-colored
vintage Thunderbird, and -- drumroll, please -- a 4-foot-tall,
rotating, talking Twitty Bird mascot. It's enough to throw a devout fan
into a Twitt Fit on the spot.
After a stroll through the grounds (lots of waterfalls and a
spectacular 10-foot Twitty Bird brick mosaic) the irrepressibly perky
tour guide leads groups through Twitty's red-brick Colonial
mini-mansion. Like the White House, you only get to tour the bottom
floor. The only exit is through the gift shop, where the faithful can
purchase everything from Conway Twitty doormats (with his trademark
"Hello Darlin' " slogan) to $2 albums and, surprisingly,
petite canisters of chemical mace (sans "Hello Darlin' "
Across the road from Twitty City there's the Bill Monroe Museum,
which is mostly devoted to cataloging the flotsam and jetsam of other
people's careers. (Sheb Wooley's ASCAP citation for "Purple People
Eater" -- a song that Monroe is not known to perform often -- is
The closest most tourists get to Music Row is Demonbreun Street, a
long, sloping block of gift shops, wax museums, cars- of-the-stars
showcases and storefront museums crowned by the Country Music Hall of
Fame. The Hank Williams Jr. Museum is a mandatory stop -- if for no
other reason than to see the 1952 Cadillac that delivered Hank Sr.
right to the doors of the Eternal Honky-Tonk. In addition to the car,
there's Nashville's best collection of guns, dead animals (personally
dispatched by Hank Jr.) and bourbon decanters. As for Hank Sr.'s
personal effects -- they speak volumes. It's hard not to like a guy who
always kept three cigars tucked in his shaving kit.
POP MUSIC'S DECLINE IS COUNTRY RADIO'S GAIN
April 3, 1992
"Forgotten." "Disenfranchised." "Turned
When people on Nashville's Music Row talk about the new country
audience, those are the words that crop up.
They all talk about the legion of new country listeners who are
finding rock and urban (read: black) radio no longer speaks to
them. Suburban teens and trailing-edge baby-boomers aged 25-35 who
were raised on rock and pop are faced with decreasing choices on
the airwaves: Top 40 is on the decline in all markets (there is no
traditional top 40 station in the Bay Area, a market where country
radio is now the No. 1 music choice for adults). Album-rock radio
emphasizes new metal and '70s hard-rock dinosaurs. Oldies-rock
promises the same 500 or so tired cuts, day in and day out. And
rap's messages of misogyny, drug-dealing, gangs and ghetto life are
another world altogether.
"This industry is speaking to a group of people whose music
has left them," says Frank Bacus, whose Emerald Entertainment
Network provides syndicated country programming to 600 stations in
North America. "We're saying, 'We'll give you something you
can sink your teeth into.' They can't relate to the Michael
Jacksons and the rap artists, so this is the alternative. They
might have negative biases against country radio as a whole, but if
they hear a song or an artist they like, they'll buy it."
''Frankly, we're extremely happy that CHR (contemporary hits
radio) has become so dance-oriented and rap-oriented," says
Jerry Crutchfield, executive vice president for artists and
repertoire for Liberty Records. "We're gaining 15-year-olds in
droves. I think it's because pop radio has really stagnated."
The teens and young boomers who are tuning to country radio for
quality songwriting and a set of values similar to their own are
re-shaping the industry:
¬… Ten years ago, there were
1,800 country stations in the United States. There now are more
¬… According to Arbitron
figures from last summer, country is the No. 1 music choice of
adults ages 25 to 54 in almost half of the top 50 radio markets
¬… Last summer, country radio
surpassed Top 40 for the first time. Country is behind only
adult-contemporary and news/ talk in listenership nationwide. A
Gallup poll last year reported that country radio is the primary
choice for 25 percent of all listeners. Top 40 lagged at 17
percent, trailed by oldies at 16 percent, classic-rock at 13
percent and soft- rock at 10 percent.
¬… The same Gallup poll asked
900 people to name today's best male singer. Garth Brooks was No.
1, followed by Randy Travis and George Strait. Frank Sinatra came
¬… A Country Music Association
study last year found 17 percent of all American adult males listen
to country radio, compared to 10 percent for adult contemporary and
8.5 percent for rock.
¬… In the San Francisco
region, KSAN-FM (94.9) and sister station KNEW-AM (910) are the No.
1 music choices for adult listeners ages 25 to 54. The most recent
Arbitron survey put the stations' combined numbers just behind
those of news/talk powerhouse KGO-AM (810) in the overall rankings.
¬… The biggest country radio
stations in the nation are not in the South or the Southwest --
they're WYNY in New York City, followed by KZLA in Los Angeles,
WUSN in Chicago and KSAN in San Francisco.
The growing demand for country radio is forcing stations to
fine-tune programming. "Country radio always spoke to an
incredibly wide audience," says Cyndi Hoelzle, associate country
editor for the Gavin Report, a national broadcasting trade journal.
"Now, we're seeing country stations targeting sub-groups --
the young '12-plus' or some other group. I think in the short run,
you'll see a lot more competition in markets that have more than
one station, now that there's money in it."
Richard Ryan, music director for KSAN and KNEW, says the
fragmentation is "coming down to a choice between traditional
country and modern country. What we're trying to achieve with KSAN
by billing ourselves as 'today's hot new country' is the message
that you're not going to hear the same old stuff. You're probably
going to hear nothing more than 3 to 5 years old. It used to be
that country was dominated by about a dozen artists who always got
their songs played -- automatically. Now, there are so many new,
young artists we can really focus on the quality of the songs.
''Country took a back seat to all other forms for so long,"
says Ryan. "It was so un-cool that people who listened to it
and people who worked in the industry felt they had to apologize
for that. We were beaten down by that stigma. Now, people are
appreciating the music for what it is and we don't have to change
it to appeal to a broader audience. That broader audience came to
COUNTRY MUSIC WILL NEVER DIE -- IT WILL JUST RETIRE TO BRANSON
April 3, 1992
Dateline: Branson, Mo.
INTERSTATE 65 is not much to brag on. At Bear Creek Springs,
Ark. -- just a few miles up the road from Dogpatch U.S.A. --
the two-lane blacktop arcs north and winds through low hills
dotted with cedars and oaks. This is Ozark country -- a rocky
wrinkle of scrubland where the main industries seem to be back-
porch curio shops and catfish farms. Nobody is getting rich
here. Judging from the shape of some of the mobile homes
notched into the hillsides, some folks are not even getting by.
About 15 miles north of the Arkansas state line, the road
straightens out and drops into a little hollow. On the right,
there's downtown Branson, a four-block main drag straight out
of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." On the other side of
the highway is the new Branson -- a world that's closer to Las
Vegas than it is to Dogpatch.
They're building a boom town on 76 Country Boulevard -- a bona
fide, country-fied Glitter Gulch where "wholesome family
values" are the buzzwords and Boxcar Willie is a hot
ticket. The 5-mile stretch of wall-to-wall theaters and motels
on State Highway 76 already boasts more country music shows
than Nashville and more theater seats than Broadway. Out on the
76 Strip, where the plastic subdivision flags flap in the wind
and the shiny marquees sprout from freshly bulldozed Ozark
dirt, the real music isn't fiddles and banjos -- it's hammers.
The town cannot build theaters and hotel rooms fast enough
to satisfy the 4 million tourists who drop $1.5 billion in
Branson each year on country-music shows, fishing and family-
oriented budget recreation. On a busy summer weekend, the town
balloons to more than 10 times its normal population of 3,706.
"For the past several years, $12 to $14 million in new
construction was the norm for us," says Dawn Erickson,
communications director of the Branson Chamber of Commerce.
"Last year saw $84 million worth of new construction in
the city limits alone." There's no end in sight for the
town "60 Minutes" christened "The Country Music
Show Capital of the Universe." Jan Eiserman, executive
director of the Ozark Marketing Council, estimates Branson's
growth this year will roughly equal that of the entire previous
decade. In May, five new theaters will open, bringing the town
total to 25 theaters and more than 50,000 seats. Also on the
boards: a pair of 2,000- seat amphitheaters, the 2,500-seat
Conway Twitty Theater and a $13 million showboat. This season,
Branson tourists will be able to choose between more than two
dozen celebrity shows and family-style revues, ranging from
Patti Page and Buddy Ebsen at the Roy Clark Celebrity Theater
to Loretta Lynn at Lowe's and Merle Haggard at the Willie
Nelson Ozark Theatre.
The biggest development in this town that makes no small
plans is the Grand Palace, a $12.7 million, 4,000-seat hall
that opens May 1 with hopes of establishing itself as "The
Carnegie Hall of Country Music." Louise Mandrell and Glen
Campbell will rotate artist-in-residence duties through the
season, hosting heavyweight acts such as Randy Travis, Reba
McEntire, Clint Black and Ricky Van Shelton.
For an aging generation of country stars who are tiring of
life on the road, Branson is a lucrative place to park the tour
bus -- permanently. There's plenty of work nine months out of
the year, plenty of breathing space and plenty of other
artists. "After 17 years on the road, I have the
opportunity to get up, go to work, come home to my own house --
and maybe even play a round of golf before dinner," says
part-time Branson resident Moe Bandy, whose house is right off
the 16th fairway of the lush Pointe Royale golf course.
"Most people would kill themselves to get out of
go-to-work-come-home routine, but for me it's just the other
Bandy is one of the savvy artists with enough capital to
build and operate his own theater. (Mickey Gilley, Roy Clark,
Ray Stevens, Mel Tillis and Boxcar Willie also have interests
in the showrooms that bear their names.) Other artists, such as
Nelson, lend their names to other people's ventures. In many of
the older operations, the artist owns not only the theater, but
the souvenir shop and the motel and restaurant next door.
For country music fans, Branson is the place to see the
stars up close, and it's easy on the budget. Show tickets run
$10-$15, dinner runs just about the same and a furnished condo
goes for $49 a night. The town takes its "wholesome family
values" mantra seriously. Although Branson is not a dry
region, you'd be hard-pressed to find a hall on the 76 Strip
that allows smoking or drinking. And you'd be equally hard-
pressed to find an off-color show. "Nudes on Ice" may
be big business in Vegas, but it wouldn't play in Branson.
Despite the appearance of the 76 Strip, Branson did not pop
up overnight. The region's tourism industry actually began in
1958, when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the White River
and created Table Rock Lake, a fisherman's paradise. Two years
later, Silver Dollar City, a theme-park-cum-crafts- village,
opened nine miles west of Branson and the "Shepherd of the
Hills" outdoor drama premiered.
The first group to stage after-dark entertainment for the
fishermen was the Baldknobbers Hillbilly Jamboree, a family
variety show named after an Ozark vigilante group. In 1967,
another family, the Presleys, built the first theater on the
country road that is now 76 Country Boulevard. Headline
entertainment hit town in 1983, when Roy Clark -- Mr. Hee-Haw
Hisself -- opened his Celebrity Theatre. Three years later, the
stars who had worked on Clark's stage began to move to Branson
and open their own halls. Tillis and Boxcar Willie led what is
now a full-fledged stampede by country-music's senior class.
''Working here night after night has made me work
harder," says Bandy, who opened his 900-seat Americana
Theater last April. "We have to do a two-hour show, so I'm
stretching myself a lot with impersonations. I'm even playing
fiddle again." The competition between the showrooms'
owner/ performers is balanced by a spirit of cooperation.
"We all realize that whenever Boxcar Willie or Shoji does
well, we do well," says Bandy. "If people come to
town to see Andy Williams or Johnny Cash, chances are they'll see
a half-dozen other shows, too."
For Bandy and the dozen or so other major stars who live in
town either full time or during the tourist season, being
accessible to fans is a must. "Shaking hands and signing
autographs is just part of being in Branson," says Bandy.
"I've signed many an autograph while shopping in Wal-
Mart." Says Erickson: "You can see the stars out on
the golf course or out fishing on the lake all the time. One of
the most attractive things about Branson is that they can lead
normal lives here."
Although it's easy to interpret Branson's gain as
Nashville's loss, the competition between the two country music
hubs is very limited. Nashville is first and foremost an
industry town where deals are made and recordings are produced.
Branson is a performance town. Except for the Grand Ole Opry
and the mammoth Opryland development that surrounds it, there
is no performance center in Nashville. And except for one
recording studio, there is no music-industry presence in
The more apt comparison would be to Las Vegas. The hallmarks
of Vegas-style production -- lasers, smoke machines, indoor
fireworks, etc. -- are already Branson staples. And non-country
acts such as Williams are beginning to appear. Shoji Tabuchi, a
fiddler who left Japan for Nashville 23 years ago and is now
one of Branson's leading citizens, draws full houses with his
middle-of-the-road Vegas-style show. This season's lineup at
the Johnny Cash Country Music Theater may include both magician
David Copperfield and Wayne Newton. There even is a plan to
bring a road production of "The Phantom of the Opera"
The allure of Branson -- "seeing country music in the
country" as Eiserman puts it -- may ultimately be
endangered by its own success. Roads and accommodations have
not kept pace with the torrid growth in theaters. "This
year, the number of indoor theater seats will increase by 50
percent over last year. The number of hotel and restaurant
seats will probably increase by about 12 percent," says
Eiserman. "If we don't catch up, we stand to choke the
Branson's boosters are reluctant to predict the fate of this
former fishing hole. "We're not taking anything for
granted," says Eiserman. "But if you asked one of the
pioneers, like Lloyd Presley, he'd tell you that 15 years ago
he was worrying if Branson could support three music shows. And
look at us now . . ." Out on the 76 Strip, there's a
mini-mart/liquor store/bait shop/gas station that sells
T-shirts with the oft-disputed quote originally attributed to
Waylon Jennings: "Will the last person to leave Nashville
for Branson please turn off the lights?"
They can't print 'em fast enough.
Rock 'n' roll