Branson, Missouri has been called the “hillbilly Las Vegas.” For the purpose of illustrating our hillbilly book (in progress) – would that it were. If artifacts are mute and architectural remnants scarce what can we learn from Branson’s tourism business? Learning from Las Vegas is easier than learning from Branson. The entertainment and attractions here must read an audience that really doesn’t know its own mind. It could be called the capital of the Hypercommon. They react negatively to certain taboos, but they have not codified their preferences. Intellectuals attribute an ideological selectivity to the populace that, truth be told, they do not possess. Neither Branson’s entertainments, nor its audience, fulfill the contemporary, rougher definition of hillbilly. Since its early days as a tourist destination it sold a kinder, gentler rustic. Harold Bell Wright’s novel, Shepherd of the Hills, was Christian and bucolic. His night-riding mountaineer lowlifes were the villains. In this 1906 book, seminal to Branson tourism, he used the word “hill-billy” only once, and then nonspecifically.
Local shows – the Presleys and the Baldknobbers – used hillbilly in their 1960s advertising, as it was still an acceptable word for country music. Following Nashville’s lead, the Branson acts have all but abandoned the term although their string band stylings and comedy licks are still pretty hillbilly.
Such diffidence could apply to the whole history of sensitivities to disparaging caricatures of the American rural primitive. Branson’s attractions are said to be predominantly “country,” which in the distant past would have universally been called “hillbilly.” Then, as now, the word, its definition and significance, has been subject to inconsistencies and frequent revisions. As “hillbilly” and “redneck” have become smooshed together in popular jargon, the Branson Chamber of Commerce isn’t encouraging the employment of the word.
Rural white people are often considered unenlightened conservatives. “Traditional” might be a better adjective. Branson must bear the criticism of sophisticates no matter what it considers itself. “Hillbilly” will be resurrected and used by slumming urbanites to describe the mixed pop, mid-cult vacation magnet with a taste for rural nostalgia. Some things hillbilly have always had a nostalgic, even sentimental, flavor. Other rustic memories are less savory. Intertwined sweet and sour recollections of backcountry life have contributed to the longevity of this persona. Such ambiguities give him a pulse long after simpler, less contradictory pop culture creatures have flatlined and been buried and forgotten. The current notoriety of the appellation may have repressed its usage in promotion, but the heritage of hillbilly/hillfolk hides in the shadows of Branson’s glitzy show facades and new modernist corporate structures.