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Published Mar/Apr 2006

Siimple tuns and down-to-earth people
make the musical roots of the Ozarks.
By Deborah Reinhardt Palmer

TThe low buzz of conversations surround theater patrons who are settling into cushioned seats. Softened musical scores float above the whispers into the audience. Lights dim, curtain up, it's show time at the Mansion America Theater in Branson, Mo. The cast for Andrew Lloyd Weber's “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” bounds onto the stage.

Broadway-and a little bit of every other musical style-has come to the Ozarks. Fans of country, rock, blues, folk, Broadway and classical music have something to enjoy here, almost year-round. Southwest Missouri and northeast Arkansas is a region that has sung its own tune for generations.

Immigrants from the British Isles started that song hundreds of years ago. When the neon and glitzy production numbers are stripped away, the musical roots of this region can be heard. This is the Ozarks-unplugged.

Early settlers

The Scots-Irish who emigrated to the Ozarks in the 18th century came primarily from Kentucky and Tennessee. A century before, these Scots were transplanted to northern Ireland but left Europe after the English hiked taxes, causing a huge migration to America in the late 1700s.

They built log cabins, hunted and raised livestock. All the while, these settlers-and their descendants-maintained self-reliance, which seemed essential to life in those hills.

Musically, some of those Scots-Irish roots can be heard in the acoustic bluegrass, country and old-time gospel melodies of the region.

Finding this music today

Call it mountain music, old-time country or string band music, the sound resonates with the past. But travelers to the Ozarks can hear this musical style in many places.

The Horsecreek Band, a group of five acoustic musicians, came together in 1975 to play at Silver Dollar City in Branson. Together, they have more than 100 years of musical experience.

George “Butch” Gregory plays guitar and is one of the original band members. The band's music mixes bluegrass, old-time country, folk and gospel. This musical style has grown in popularity over the last two years, Gregory said. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” has exposed a lot of younger people to string music, he added.

Melodies and rhythms in bluegrass are rooted in Ireland, Gregory said. D.A. Callaway, festival producer at Silver Dollar City, said those ancient European harmonies give us a sense of heritage.

“Maybe that's why it's magic to us. It's familiar, to the marrow in our bones,” he said.
The fiddle, a favorite for European jigs and reels, mixed with the American banjo and created upbeat instrumentals. Later, lyrics told stories of war, sadness or tragic events, creating bittersweet ballads.

“The Ozarks of Missouri have always been a hot spot for country, bluegrass and gospel music,” Gregory said.

This type of music could be heard in the Ozarks as late as the 1920s to '40s, prior to electricity coming to the area. Folks often gathered for “house parties” that featured square dancing and live music for their evening entertainment.

With electricity, more Ozark residents turned to the radio and television for home entertainment. In the 1930s-50s, the Ozarks grew as a vacation destination, and more people were being exposed to its music. In the early 1950s, a radio show brought this music to a wider audience.

A music industry blossoms

Kentuckian Clyde “Red” Foley played a big role in the expansion of Springfield, Mo., as a country music center. Foley, a country-recording artist, had success in radio in the 1930s and '40s. He came to Nashville in 1946 to headline the “Prince Albert Show” but quit the master of ceremonies role in 1953 to tour as a Grand Ole Opry act.

By 1954, producer Si Siman persuaded Foley to move to Springfield to headline KWTO's “Ozark Jubilee” on ABC radio. In 1955, he became the host for “Ozark Jubilee” an early ABC network television show that ran until 1960, sometimes using the names “Country Music Jubilee” and “Jubilee USA.”

The Jubilee, network television's first country music show, was aired on Saturday night every week from the Jewel Theater in Springfield. Fans paid $1 to see stars like Johnny Cash, June Carter, Gene Autry, Chet Atkins and Patsy Cline.

Springfield producer Gary Ellison was a teenager when he joined the Jubilee cast in the late 1950s. He was part of a local square dancing group called the Wagonwheelers. Ellison said people came from around the country to see the Jubilee. During the busy summer months, the cast put on two shows on a Saturday, one to be broadcast and a second stage show for a new audience. The theater couldn't accommodate the crowds with one show.

“The Ozark Jubilee was the first thing to draw tourists to the Ozarks to hear music,” Ellison said, adding he doesn't believe the Ozark music scene could have evolved into the industry it is today without the Jubilee's influences.

“Branson has a lot of the Jubilee's fingerprints on it. One of the writers for the Ozark Jubilee–Don Richardson–was the first PR (public relations) guy for Silver Dollar City and he named the park. Andy Miller, a Jubilee set designer was hired by the Herschends and designed Silver Dollar City.”

The Herschend family opened Silver Dollar City in 1960.

During the Jubilee's era, Springfield was the third-largest city in America to produce live television shows, right behind New York and Hollywood, said Ellison, who conducted interviews for the PBS documentary, “Ozark Jubilee: A Living Legacy.”

“I believe that in order to be a success, you have to have an audience. And the Jubilee definitely had that,” Ellison said, adding more than 20 million viewers watched each week.

With the completion of Table Rock Dam in 1959 and the Ozark Jubilee rolling along in Springfield, more tourists were coming to the area to hear music and fish in the lakes.

That same year, the Mabe family–brothers Bob, Bill, Lyle and Jim–opened their music show in downtown Branson at the old city hall. With 50 folding chairs and homemade instruments, they entertained fishermen who visited Lake Taneycomo. Calling themselves the Baldknobbers after vigilante groups known to the hills in the 1880s, the brothers combined country tunes with Ozark mountain music and comedy skits.

When the show became popular and city hall too crowded, they moved to an old skating rink in Branson and converted it into the town's first theater. In 1968, the Baldknobbers built a theater on Highway 76, making their act the longest continuously running show in Branson.

In 1960, the Trimble family opened “The Shepherd of the Hills” outdoor pageant, based on Harold Bell Wright's novel. The Presley family in 1963 started their music show near Talking Rocks Cavern in Kimberling City, and built the first music theater on Highway 76 in 1967. Branson-and the Ozarks-were on the way to fame.

The boom years

From 1970 to 1990, more music theaters opened in the Ozarks.

In Branson, more country music stars-such as Porter Wagoner, Buck Trent and Dolly Parton-came into town during the 1970s. But Roy Clark was the first national country star to set roots and open a theater in Branson in 1983 and hosted people like Mel Tillis, Boxcar Willie, Ray Stevens and Jim Stafford, all of whom later opened their own theaters.

When a 1991 “60 Minutes” segment focused on Branson, there were 22 theaters in town. Today, Branson has more than doubled the number.
But Branson isn't the only venue for Ozark music.

In the town of Mountain View, Ark., the Ozark Folk Center State Park opened in 1973. Dedicated to preserving Ozark folk music, food and art, the center immerses visitors in the hill culture.

The idea for the center came from the success of the Arkansas Folk Festival, which started in 1963. When it opened, the center had a 1,060-seat music theater, 16 craft shops, welcome center, restaurant and lodge. The sounds of dulcimers, banjos, fiddles and guitars drift from the theater into the hilltop park. Concerts and special events are popular throughout the year.

“The story of the culture and heritage of the Ozarks never changes, but the park is always evolving in order to give visitors a better idea of the way our ancestors worked and played,” said park superintendent Bill Young.

In the Victorian town of Eureka Springs, Ark., the Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down mixes old-time and contemporary country music with bluegrass and gospel in its show. Pine Mountain Jamboree combines a variety of music with comedy for a family show that's been a tradition in the Ozarks since 1975.

Going back to basics

To learn more about Ozark culture, the Ozark Folk School will be held March 19–24 ad the Ozark Folk Center. Music workshops include dulcimer, fiddle, banjo and singing. There also are classes in crafts and herb gardening. Music workshops are $325. Lodging and meal plans are additional.

Callaway said Silver Dollar City is planning its second Bluegrass and Barbecue Festival for May 13-–June 4. The Horsecreek Band will kick off the festival. National bluegrass star, Ricky Skaggs, will also perform May 28. A new Southern Gospel Picnic festival will take place Aug. 31-Sept. 10, and the big Festival of American Music and Craft takes the stage Sept. 14-Oct. 28. Cowboy music and art will be the highlight, and national star Ricky Van Shelton will perform Sept. 16.

“Our music in the Ozarks is alive,” Callaway said. “It's what connects us to our heritage. It's not in a museum someplace.”

Deborah Reinhardt Palmer is managing editor of AAA Midwest Traveler and AAA Southern Traveler magazines.


Above: The Horse Creek Band has played together at Silver Dollar City in Branson since 1975. Silver Dollar City photo

Below: The Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View hosts seminars for folk music this spring. Arkansas Parks and Tourism photo


Before You Go
• Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, (417) 334-4084 or www.explorebranson.com;
• Silver Dollar City,1-800-475-9370 or www.silverdollarcity.com;
• Baldknobbers, 1-800-998-8909, www.baldknobbers.com;
• Ozark Folk Center, (870) 269-3851, www.ozarkfolkcenter.com;
• Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, 1-866-566-9387, www.eurekasprings.org.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

New Sights
• “Titanic... The Legend Continues,” on Highway 76 across from Legends Family Theater, features re-creations of first-class staterooms, third-class austere accommodations, the Grand Staircase, 400 artifacts, plus an interactive area for passengers to experience the touch of an iceberg.
• Opening in 2006, Branson Landing will offer 95 acres of exciting shopping, dining, a Hilton hotel, condominiums, active marinas and a new town square in downtown Branson. A $7.5 million spectacular nightly attraction synchronizes water, light, sound and fire. Branson Landing will also feature a scenic boardwalk along the 1.5-mile Taneycomo lakefront.
• The nationally-known touring bluegrass band, Goldwing Express, is moving to the Hughes Brothers Celebrity Theatre for Bluegrass and BBQ.
• In the tradition of 19th-century expositions, Silver Dollar City presents an all-new development for 2006–the Grand Exposition. An $8 million expansion in a new region of the theme park, the Grand Exposition re-creates an American tour of discovery, including 10 new family rides that soar, whirl and fly.

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