It was only a short trip—a vacation, an exploration, an investigation into the heartland. I didn't think that six days in Branson, Missouri, would be enough to win me over. After all, I spent 16 years in the original cultural wasteland of Las Vegas—it was a little difficult to comprehend the mechanisms of a Las Vegas wannabe that seeks the glory of being an Entertainment Town without relying on the aid of gambling, prostitution, white tigers, or anything open past 10pm. But Branson beckons millions beyond those (like myself) who seek to decipher the American mystique by crossing through hell and high water (a torrential downpour over Memphis) to reach this jewel of the Bible Belt. I found its true cunning to lie beneath the bright lights and second-rate entertainers that lure caravans of recreational vehicles driven by seniors from around the Midwest. This Missourian Mecca, where good Christians come to let their hair down to the rockin' melodies of Bobby Vinton, held a secret seductiveness I wanted to decode.
Branson's remarkable celebration of mediocrity offered me a deluge of culture shock that will remain with me until the end of my days. The elements of which it seemed most proud were those that would have been laughed out of the state of Nevada for their amateurish proclivities. I was astounded by the sub-par excellence of Shoji Tabuchi, the Japanese bluegrass fiddler whose showcase of the most base features of show business somehow makes Wayne Newton's recently penned 10-year contract in LV seem sensible. Then there was the sense of regional pride for the "World's Largest Banjo" at the all-you-can-eat pizza and salad restaurant. Now, I know from overblown spectacles, and let me tell you, that banjo it ain't that big. Yet through some miracle of psycho-cultural subversion, some deeply rooted sleight-of-hand, I loved Branson from the bottom of my Southern Nevada heart.
I spent my days at Silver Dollar City, a God-fearin' amusement park with a pioneer theme, over-dosing on Kettle Corn, a truly delectable popcorn concoction with both salt and sugar that Bransonians devour in frightening proportions. It's no 50-cent shrimp cocktail, but that Kettle Corn sure is good. My nights were whiled away at Jimmy's Keyboard Lounge, one of Bran-son's few true watering holes, watching the proprietor (you guessed it Jimmy) passionately emoting via his Hammond B-3 organ. This was not your everyday piano lounge. Listen up, Vegas lizards—this guy had mirrors behind his organ pedals and patent leather shoes. The man was not playing around, and this, dear readers, is the kind of thing that won me over: the untainted experience, the sheer under-the-top-ness of it all.
The Branson "Strip" has its fair share of neon and a notion of the "bigger equals better" concept that makes Vegas great, but it possesses an innocence that shines through the façade. During my brief stay, the Pandora's box of the Missourian enigma was not completely opened up to me, but my teenaged companion on the Silver Dollar City log ride offered me a glimpse of the key. It was at this point when I realized that my sense of self and my Las Vegas experience were my only notions of reality, and they were being slowly undermined. Her statement, although bordering on the surreal, instantly secured my appreciation of the Branson mystique. "I love it here!" she cried, as we were about to be hurled to our dampened destinies. "I mean... I thought church was fun, but this is great!"
Who needs Vegas? This is living.
Sara Cameron is an editor and cultural theorist. She treasures her Las Vegas roots, but calls Brooklyn her home.
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