Branson, Missouri has become a hot vacation destination, and bluegrass music has played a prominent role. “The sounds of the hills are very much rooted in bluegrass,” says Lisa Rau, director of public relations and publicity for Silver Dollar City Attractions/Herschend Family Entertainment, one of the main attractions in Branson.
“Here in the hills, people gathered for picking parties on porches. That went well into the 1950s, and we recreate that here at Silver Dollar City to give visitors an authentic hills experience.”
Today the City of Branson, nestled within the heart of the Ozark Hills, has a population of fewer than 11,000 people, yet it has millions of visitors annually.
The area attracted tourists early on due to its easily accessible cave system. Lisa explains that Jack Herschend and his brother, Pete, used to give cave tours to tourists in the late 1950s.
“To keep folks entertained while they stood in line, they hired a man named Fiddlin’ Jake to play.” There is no doubt that was the beginning of Branson becoming a musical mecca. “Jack Herschend married the daughter of an early cave guy,” says Lisa. “She played the dulcimer, and there was a certain allure to it that appealed to Jack.”
The Herschend brothers developed their entertainment empire, including theme parks and other attractions across the United States. Probably the most well-known is Silver Dollar City in Branson, built on Marvel Cave. “Silver Dollar City opened May 1, 1960,” says Lisa. “The musicians are what keeps the tradition of bluegrass alive. We have Main Street and a square in Silver Dollar City where visitors can find crafts from the region, a general store, street theatre, and lots of music, primarily the bluegrass music of the Ozark Hills. As a matter of fact, Silver Dollar City has never been without bluegrass music, including picking parties.”
One of the features of Silver Dollar City is an 1800s homestead. “We feature our Homestead Pickers during three to four shows a day. It’s not unusual for guests to bring their own instruments, spoons, and even their voices to play along with our musicians.”
While Silver Dollar City is a great place to hear live music, it isn’t the only place in Branson where live music draws crowds. Branson’s entertainment district, known as “The Strip,” features dozens of theatres where live bands and performers present both traditional and contemporary bluegrass. “We have embraced the traditional because that’s our roots,” says Lisa. “But we also need to stay relevant. I’ve found that the largely traditional groups play on weeknights, but on the weekend, the more contemporary artists play. It’s a nice introduction to bluegrass for some, and for others, it shows how bluegrass has evolved.”
There are other things to do when not listening to live music in Branson. Tours are still given in Marvel Cave, and many enjoy outdoor activities at Table Rock State Park and Moonshine Beach. For a fun evening out, there’s nothing like the experience at Dolly Parton’s Stampede Theatre, where 32 magnificent horses perform in a 35,000-foot arena, complete with dinner. And anyone who knows anything about Dolly will know she loves butterflies, which is why she would probably love visiting the Butterfly Palace in Branson, a magical place to remember forever, featuring 1,000 live exotic butterflies along with tropical plants and birds. Other Branson hotspots include the Titanic Museum, with a full-size model of the ill-fated ship, and the Celebrity Car Museum, where over one hundred iconic vehicles from television shows and movies are on display.
One of the biggest events in Branson is the annual Bluegrass and BBQ Festival held on the grounds of Silver Dollar City. The festival kicks off this year on May 4 and runs through May 29. This year’s festival features some of the most well-known names in bluegrass, including Missouri native Rhonda Vincent, Joe Mullins and The Radio Ramblers, The Special Consensus, Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, and many more. During the festival, visitors can enjoy barbequed chicken, brisket, pulled pork, and slow-cooked ribs. While people tend to come for the music, they stay for the barbecue.
One of the festival highlights is the Youth in Bluegrass Band Contest, Silver Dollar City’s tradition going back twenty-five years, providing young musicians from across the country the chance to perform and compete for top honors. Held in conjunction with KSMU-FM, the winners receive cash prizes. “We have seen some strong bluegrass recording artists come out of this contest,” says Lisa.
For more information on Branson and its attractions, visit the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website, www.explorebranson.com.