Thanks to deep roots in country music, this little town in Southwestern Missouri attracts hardcore country-and-western fans who come from all over to see C&W legends like Merle Haggard and Gene Watson. Now, with a direct flight from DFW, it’s easier than ever to get there.
A little before opening tonight’s show for country-music legend Merle Haggard, traditional country-and-western singer Gene Watson is in his idling tour bus outside a concert hall in Branson, talking about his affection for this entertainment and tourism town in southwestern Missouri.
“I was working here before it really exploded,” says Watson, 66, a native of Palestine, Texas, who’s now based in Houston. “I’ve watched Branson grow up and really and truly outgrow itself. But unlike a lot of places, it seems like it’s tried to keep its roots in country music. So it’s always a pleasure for us to come back.”
If you’re a hardcore country-music fan, as I am, you can probably relate to Watson’s talk about the country “roots” quality of little Branson (population: 7,500), Missouri.
It is, after all, an affordable, down-home place, well known for its unassuming theaters owned by C&W stars like Mickey Gilley and the Oak Ridge Boys. It’s not for nothing that Darius Rucker, an African-American and former Hootie & the Blowfish star who’s become a country singer, recently said, “I plan on making country records until I’m playing at my own theater in Branson.”
Indeed, the town’s reputation as a C&W hot spot was one reason I flew there from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport—Sun Country Airlines launched the direct route May 11 to Branson’s new private airport—to catch a Haggard/Watson show at the Tri-Lakes Center in early June.
If you’re not a particular fan of country music, you may know Branson best for its traffic-choked main drag, West Highway 76. There, station wagons, pickup trucks, and recreational vehicles crawl during the summer “rush” hour past miles of attractions such as a “Titanic” museum and signs for G-rated entertainers such as Andy Williams, Jim Stafford, and Paul Revere & The Raiders.
Beyond its renown as a family-oriented vacation Mecca—there are also three prize-winning fishing lakes in the region—Branson is surprisingly progressive, with a savvy sense for the marketing of its rural, Ozark Mountains heritage.
In 2006, for example, a $420 million development called Branson Landing launched with retail shops, nightlife, and luxury lodging along Lake Taneycomo. Two years ago, the city opened a 220,000-square-foot downtown convention center and adjacent Hilton hotel, aiming to attract more business meetings. And, earlier this year, the area finished building the nation’s first privately financed and operated commercial airport.
It was the development of Branson Airport—a $155 million project completed in less than two years, without any government funds—that led Minnesota-based Sun Country to inaugurate three flights weekly between Branson and D/FW.
The airline is hoping to capitalize on the region’s popularity among North Texans. Of the estimated 8 million people who visit Branson each year, nearly 3 percent, or 240,000, hail from Dallas-Fort Worth, Branson officials say. Previously they were forced to either drive to Branson or fly into the airport at Springfield, about an hour north.
The new airport, which will be able to accommodate as many as five 747s at a time, currently sports four gates, a 58,000-square-foot terminal, and service by two low-cost airlines: Sun Country and Florida-based AirTran Airways, which flies into Branson mainly from Atlanta. However, says Lynn Berry of the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau, the airport expects more routes to be announced this summer, most likely originating in a western state like Arizona, Oregon, or Colorado.
The Sun Country flight I sampled cost about $145 for a round trip, plus $15 to check one bag each way.
Our Boeing 737 took off just before noon from D/FW’s Terminal D and was nearly full, though many of the passengers would continue on to Minneapolis/St. Paul, the flight’s ultimate destination. When we arrived in Missouri after about an hour in the air, a smiling woman said, “Welcome to Branson!” to each of us as we got off the plane.
A baggage handler asked, “How was the flight?”
The terminal itself was bright and modern, but with an Ozarks touch. It was built of cedar and barn wood and limestone, with rocking chairs, a big splashing waterwheel, a Bass Pro “general store,” and a Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant.
There was also a down-home, Ozarks feel the next evening at Tri-Lakes Center, where as many as 2,600 people had gathered for the Haggard/Watson show.
Out in the lobby of the concert hall, which doubles as a church, some of the men were dressed in overalls. One guy wore a Confederate-flag gimme cap. Another had on a t-shirt proclaiming, “If You Don’t Love It, Leave It”—a famous line from "Fightin’ Side Of Me," a 1970s-era Merle Haggard anthem.
By contrast, the newer Haggard gear, on sale in the Tri-Lakes lobby, seemed considerably more mellow. Said one of its slogans: “America. Hopes Are High.”
That night’s nearly three-hour show, promoted by Bob Cannella of Arlington, Texas-based Up Close Concerts, was vintage traditional country, expertly performed. Watson sang all his big hits, including “Farewell Party” and “Love in the Hot Afternoon,” as well as a song that included the line, “Ain’t been no trash in my trailer, since the day I threw you out of here.”
Haggard, for his part, followed Watson with a pleasingly workman-like performance, despite having undergone a recent lung-cancer operation. After opening with the rowdy "Rambling Fever," the 72-year-old C&W icon worked through a generous sampling of his hits, from “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Silver Wings” to “Rainbow Stew” and “Mama Tried.”
His characteristically laconic sense of humor was on display just before he tackled what may be his most famous song, “Okie From Muskogee.” “People ask, ‘Why’d you write Okie?’” Haggard told the crowd, “and I say, ‘Mainly because I was the only one who knew the words.’”
Out on his bus a little earlier, Watson had tried to answer a different question—one about Branson’s longtime appeal to country-music luminaries like Mel Tillis, Moe Bandy, and the Gatlin Brothers.
“So many people come here from all over the world, and I mean that literally,” he said. “You’re liable to talk to someone from England or Scotland or Germany. It seems like it’s real easy to reach out and touch your fans, just by coming to Branson, because they come here from everywhere.”
Haggard will be back in Branson for a concert at Tri-Lakes Center on September 21, while Watson will return to southwestern Missouri next on October 25. His venue of choice for that show seems fitting: the God & Country Theatre, off West Highway 76.
How To Get There
Sun Country Airlines offers three flights weekly between DFW and Branson.
Where To Stay
Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel
200 E. Main St.
Branson, MO 65616
417-336-5400; (800) HILTONS
Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing
3 Branson Landing Blvd.
Branson, MO 65616
417-336-5500; (800) HILTONS