On a sunny January day in 2014 we drove the White River hills searching for hillbilly holdouts. Coffelt Country Crossroads, a collection of craft, souvenir, and flea market enterprises, is in a relaxed, off-season mode. Prefabricated transportable buildings (trailers) alternate with shacks and log cabins. Come summer, visitors can stick their heads out of ovals in painted plywood and become either stereotyped tourists or stereotyped natives. The Comedy Jamboree billboard beyond guarantees unsophisticated humor, most of it probably indistinguishable from the Goober acts that all Branson country shows have. Tacky and hillbilly are associated lapses in taste in the minds of the elite.
Music Highway 76 is lined with a multitude of opportunities to swipe one’s credit card in exchange for food, shelter, souvenirs and gifts, and live entertainment. A percentage of the theaters are of the country music genre. There are also several fee-charging exhibitions – Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the Titanic, the Hollywood Wax Museum, and the World’s Largest Toy Museum. Within the latter is a small collection of relics that once belonged to Harold Bell Wright, the author who led the public to believe the region was still inhabited by God-fearing pioneers as well as some proto-hillbilly rowdies.
Just down the road is a non-charging exhibition of American cast off goods and decorative objects. R. Z.’s Antiques and Flea Market didn’t yield any treasures to add to our collection, but earlier in the day, Crystal extracted from a Hollister second hand emporium a scarce hillbilly ceramic face that was made by a local pottery in the 1950s.
References to America’s frontier epoch – lusty hillbilly and godly pioneer alike – are less visible than twenty years ago. In that time, institutions, big business, and a powerful central government have expanded. Branson is now more diverse and pop and somewhat less country. Religion and politics have grown closer. “Old fashioned” doesn’t have the cachet it once did as memories of rural life recede with each urban and suburban generation.
Corny jokes are still cracked onstage and whittled hillbillies are still available in gift shops. Virtually every live show, country or not, will have a red blooded patriotic number and will end with a hymn. The glass fronted, 12-story Hilton Hotel has TV channel lineups chock full of redneck reality shows. Hillbillies have proven to be surprisingly adaptable to changing times and adroit in homesteading new media. You can buy a conceal-and-carry holster on the Main Street of Old Branson. You will look in vain for a conceal-and-carry designer holster among the national brands that have set up shop in the new Branson Landing. Lord knows, real hillbillies don’t go nowhere unarmed.