THE COUNTRY CLUB

A GENERATION OF DISAFFECTED FANS FLEES THE ROCK
BANDWAGON FOR THE NEW, QUALITY-OBSESSED NASHVILLE

Published: April 3, 1992
Dateline: Nashville


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 Biosphere.

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 there?"

''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 shift."

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 Out There?")

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 listeners.

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 poetic."

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 threatening."


A TALE OF TWO MUSIC CITIES

Nashville's a real industry town --
and a schlock-choked tourist mecca

Published: April 3, 1992
Dateline: Nashville



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 with it.

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 'round."

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' " greeting).

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 prominently displayed.)

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

Published: April 3, 1992
Dateline: Nashville


``ABANDONED." "Forgotten." "Disenfranchised." "Turned off."

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 than 2,500.

  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 nationwide.

  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 in fourth.

  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 us."


COUNTRY MUSIC WILL NEVER DIE -- IT WILL JUST RETIRE TO BRANSON

Published: 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 way around."

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 Branson.

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" here.

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 growth."

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.



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