They say the hills are alive with the sound of music, but this music has a bit more twang than Julie Andrews and the von Trapp family’s serenades. In Branson, Missouri, a tourist town known for the Silver Dollar City amusement park, which opened in 1960, and dubbed the “live music capital of the entire universe” by 60 Minutes in 1991, some of the same families have been entertaining along Highway 76 for more than half a century.
It all began inside the hills—literally. As a way to keep cool in the summer, in 1962 the Presleys, one of the founding families of the Branson entertainment scene, began performing within the caverns of the Ozarks. Before long, their weekly syndicated radio show featuring family performers and Nashville acts attracted national attention. Crowds spilled out of the caves. “It’s the Ozarks, but people feel like they’re coming home,” says Gary Presley, who has played his comedic character Herkimer, a loveable hillbilly, for nearly sixty years.
In 1967 the Presleys took a chance and opened Mountain Music Theatre, which featured the novelty of air-conditioning on a stretch of two-lane highway that is now Highway 76. More than fifty years later, at Presleys’ Country Jubilee, three generations of the Presley family continue to perform country, gospel, bluegrass, and comedy routines. “You leave hopefully happy,” says Eric Presley, Gary’s son who has played Herkimer’s son, Cecil, in the show’s comedy skit for over forty years, since he could barely walk. Now, a state-of-the-art theater seats 1,950 people and annually hosts 220 live shows and twenty-six television shows on the RFD-TV network, averaging more than 400,000 viewers per week. Costumes include overalls, straw hats, and more than a little brightly colored plaid. Eric Presley likens the whole scene to a “Neon Mayberry.”
The path to continued success has been as bumpy as the Ozark hills themselves in recent years—changing audience demographics and the pandemic’s shutdown of live performances forced some entertainers to reinvent their acts and find new ways to attract a younger audience. A bit of pluck has kept them going. “Branson has really broadened from generation to generation,” Brandon Mabe, a third-generation performer says. “So many different things that appeal not just to the older generation, but to middle age people and kids.”
Like the Presleys, Mabe’s family show, the Baldknobbers, had humble beginnings. In 1959, the Mabe brothers began performing under the name Baldknobbers, a term for a group of vigilantes in the late 1800s. “They started performing for the fishermen as they got off the boats,” at Lake Taneycomo, says Brandon Mabe. From their stage at the Branson Famous Theater, the Baldknobbers have the longest continuously running show in Branson. Financial difficulties forced the actors to move from their home of more than fifty years to a new venue, the former Shanghai Theater, in 2017. Branson was seeing its demographics shift, the Branson Chamber of Commerce found, with fewer retirees in motorcoaches, and more families and young people. Brandon Mabe and his wife, the soloist Megan McCombs Mabe, embraced the opportunity to make the show more contemporary. They changed up the costumes—more leather, ripped jeans, and sequins—and amped up popular songs including “Cowgirls Don’t Cry.”
One family, the Duttons, saw their stars rise after their 2007 performance on America’s Got Talent. Dean and Sheila Dutton and their musical children have performed instrumental shows all over the world and began performing original music in Branson’s Boxcar Willie Theater in 1998. “People connect to a hunger that they have for good things, good values, and love,” says Sheila, the Dutton’s bass player and CEO. The Duttons purchased the theater in 2001 and soon diversified their business, adding The Dutton Inn—a conjoining hotel featuring a country breakfast—Abby’s Tourist Trap gift shop, and a second theater in Mesa, Arizona. (A sweet perk at this venue: Performers serve the audience homemade fudge.) Despite their national recognition, the COVID shutdown was tough on all performers, with live performances canceled and limited capacity seating following re-openings.
Despite the challenges, Branson’s entertainment industry is gearing up for the summer season, and family remains the tie that binds. The Branson style of entertainment comes naturally after so many years of working together, Eric Presley says: “That’s part of the recipe. It’s funny that sometimes we don’t even realize it.”