If you had mentioned Branson, Missouri, 50 — or even 30 — years ago, chances are few people outside that little fishing town in the Ozark Mountains would have heard of the place. But all that changed in 1983, and today Branson is world-famous as a performance venue for country, oldies-rock, and other musicians.
Branson was so tiny, it was not even on a Missouri road map as late as 1950. A few strangers did find their way down the two-lane highway into town on their way to catching bass or trout at one of three nearby, world-class fishing lakes.
This is a typical group of seasoned travelers, dining in Branson between shows. These folks had come by tour bus from the First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
And in 1960, a little amusement park brought in a few more visitors, and a local musical group started offering live shows for anyone who happened through.
But Branson's fortunes changed dramatically in 1983, when country singer, guitar master, and songwriter Roy Clark opened a theater there and invited his friends to come perform with him.
Soon, musical stars started making a pilgrimage across Missouri's backroads to this flyspeck of a town. Some, like Andy Williams, Wayne Newton, the Osmonds, and Mickey Gilley opened their own clubs as well. The Branson phenomenon had begun.
A tourist, joining the show aboard the Branson Belle showboat, is apparently enjoying the experience.
Now the two-lane road is a four-lane expressway, often packed with buses full of tourists from all across the Midwest. They're the same crowd that regularly checks out rock-'n'-roll legend Elvis Presley's mansion over in Tennessee, even though the King has been dead for almost 33 years.
A lot of the old-time stars who put Branson on the map have died or moved on. Some visitors complain that the music and jokes in the clubs are getting a bit too racy for them to bring the kids. But the fishing's still great, prices at the all-you-can-eat buffets reasonable, and Branson's still a boomtown. There's even a two-story Titanic museum shaped like the ill-fated luxury cruise ship that sank in the North Atlantic in 1912.
About 7,500 people live in Branson today, and there's a good-sized dot next to the Branson name on the Missouri map.