BRANSON, Mo. - At Charlie's Steak, Ribs & Ale, just off the famous 76 Country Boulevard in Branson, a prime cut of New York strip steak can be procured for $12.99, about the cost of a typical side dish at a steak house in New York City. And at Charlie's, your hunk of beef comes not only with your choice of potato and coleslaw, but also with the song stylings of Rebecca Dawn.
Dawn, whose optimistic name hopefully steels her against the challenges of what must be a very tough gig, wanders solo around the tables, wireless microphone in hand and pretaped track at her back, knocking out country ditties and dispensing signed photos and bonhomie. She has sung with such blue-chip Branson names as Mickey Gilley and the late Boxcar Willie in her not-so-distant past; now she sings alongside Charlie's Caesar salad.
She is a lot better than she should be, and she is the kind of act you find only in Branson. This tourist town has grown up out of the determination of a group of community-minded musical entertainers who wanted to get off the road and raise families where every attraction is suitable for all ages and where no one blinks an eye when you mention God and country.
It seems there isn't a show in this hospitable town that doesn't salute military veterans and acknowledge the Almighty. And this town has many shows, typically at entertainer-owned or entertainer-leased venues.
The Haygoods' show is in its 21st season, which must mean these fiddling siblings started when they were about 9. Their rousing final number segues seamlessly into the last few measures of the "Star-Spangled Banner," ensuring a standing ovation every time. If you're an urban liberal who resists that sort of thing, perhaps Branson is not your town. Or perhaps you are just forgetting that a vacation should mean you open your mind to a different set of values in a world of shared natural beauty.
For Dawn is not the only unique item in this atypical corner of Missouri.
If the mood strikes, you can zip through the fun, customer-centered Branson Zipline (choose the Blue Streak Fast Line and Free Fall Xpress package for the quickest thrill). I watched a woman who declared herself close to 70 take full advantage of technology permitting an extreme drop, a system developed to train military personnel to jump out of planes. Those of us who watched her jump from the platform for the 100-foot free fall into the abyss were terrified on her behalf, but the fearless woman hit the soft floor with ease, throwing her head back with a hearty laugh while ending up in the open arms of a handsome, young staffer.
Over at Silver Dollar City, a folksy, reasonably priced theme park with pathways and attractions threaded through the Ozark Mountains, they've come up with Outlaw Run.
New this year, the roller coaster manages to solve one of the great philosophical conundrums faced by coaster geeks ever since the invention of the first looping ride: Is it better to defy gravity on a smooth steel track or to enjoy the old-school bumps of a rickety wooden variety?
Outlaw Run is the first to offer both at once: the choppy excitement of wood and the double-barrel roll of steel. The 68-m.p.h. ride is the first wooden coaster in the world to fling its riders upside down; that alone was worth my family's eight-hour drive to Branson from Chicago. (It's a 17-hour drive from Philadelphia.)
The less hardy can fly directly into town from several destinations, thanks to the recent expansion of Branson Airport (flybranson.com).
Most people think of Branson as a place to see the celebrities of country music. But that view is a tad outmoded. The main drag, 76 Country Boulevard, is hardly crowded with boldfaced names. The bread-and-butter of the new economic normal here is the family act, like the Knudsen brothers, who make up the terrific "Six," a justifiably popular show wherein everything you hear comes from one of these remarkably flexible brotherly throats.
Given all the competition, some Branson entertainers, such as Janice Martin, decide they need to ensure they can't be duplicated.
Martin is a Juilliard School graduate who plies her trade as one of the world's few aerial violinists, fiddling away an afternoon as her audience polishes off baked potatoes and she knots herself in silks. Given that this act takes place on the Branson Belle, a faux showboat that cruises a man-made lake, the layering of one only-in-Branson novelty after another can overwhelm as surely as the spectacles on the Las Vegas Strip. I mean, was the world really aching for an aerial violinist? Of course, it's tough all over, and like Dawn, Martin is a lot better than she should be. And she's an Army veteran to boot.
Downtown Branson has two distinct sides. One is a scruffy, likable mix of flea markets and antique shops where Western motifs are a specialty, along with Victorian kitsch, and where Dick's 5 & 10 reigns like a junkyard king. The 50-year-old emporium is crammed with stuff one does not need but weirdly desires.
The other side is the gentrified Branson Landing, a new tourist-oriented mall across from the Hilton Branson Convention Center (417-336-5400, tinyurl.com/bransonhilt), the best place in town to stay and a really beautiful, new hotel with indoor and outdoor pools and a soaring lobby but a very Branson atmosphere. It takes a while for a newcomer to figure out that the valet parking involves pulling up in your car and, regardless if anyone is around, leaving your keys in the car and heading up to your room with no thought of theft. The first night, I came back twice to make sure my car was still there, apparently to the amusement of front-desk clerks.