Culture U.S. of A.

Banjo Jesus

Today was my last day in Branson, MO (trust me, 2 days is enough). As my previous post tries to demonstrate, it was, if nothing else, a superior sociological quickie.

Grandma sent me off in style. After a visit to Wal-Mart, she took me to lunch at Shoney’s, where she splurged for the $7.99 lunch buffet, replete with fried everything, loads of grease, and iceberg lettuce, diced ham, and Lucerne grated cheese on the salad bar. Oh, I forgot the runny pudding, strange pink custard matter, slouching strawberries, and pears in syrup. Right out of a Del Monte can.

As we ate, I noted the sea of white-haired heads all around us. Not only patrons, but wait staff. The 70-year-old woman shoving one of those powerless vacuums around, the kind that picks up precisely 20% of what it tries to pick up. The clearly inbred couple and their strange Damien child (this sounds like hyperbole, so let me rephrase: The couple with close-set eyes, slightly unnatural bodies, slurred speech, and more than a bit of mouth-breathing and their child, with skin like paraffin, hair like fine seaweed, and, well, eyes like Damien, the scion of Satan). More cholesterol-ridden, cellulite-paneled fat than Richard Simmons’ entire client list.

You get the picture. It is not retouched.

Suddenly, there came to my ears the sound of a string instrument: the twang of a guitar, something of a banjo, was that a violin in there, too? I turned to see a group of performers (remember, we are at Shoney’s, the poor man’s Denny’s) standing in the aisle between tables packed with old people.

At first, I recoiled, but then I looked at their faces. Beatific, smiling faces ranging from a young boy, maybe 13, to a middle-aged man, maybe 55. Between them were several other children, all teenagers, about three boys from 15 to 18, and a couple of girls. They all held instruments, but what was astonishing about them, aside from their extraordinary beauty, was their physical similarity to each other. You could have separated any one of them from the rest and identified the whole lot from one specimen. Like Osmonds. Or Jacksons. Baldwins, even, but without all the manly hair.

And then they played. I expected the worst, but slowly lowered my fork as this angelic choir launched into a harmonious mix of vocals and strings, all rooted in soft bluegrass. My meal forgotten, my grandmother forgotten, I became lost, if only for moments, in the gorgeousness of their song.

I’m pretty sure it is the confluence of their familial similarity, their skill with strings, their voices, and their inarguable beauty that struck me so hard. Here, at Shoney’s, the Von Trapps themselves, but with banjos!

After telling my grandmother that I hated country music (this genetic stanza before me was vaguely country music) and that I hated the harsh, bang-y twang of the banjo, I added that I loved what I was hearing. How calming, how soothing, how tonally perfect. Why were they in Branson? Why had no one ever heard of them? Were they Osmonds for the 21st C.?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked. I quickly learned that they are the Wissmann Family. They hail from Nebraska. Mr. and Mrs. W have 13 children ages 2 – 26. All told, they play 15 instruments, including harp, piano, and steel guitar. The children are home schooled (which, for a moment, made me love them more).

But nature demonstrates over and over again that the lure of beauty is often a mask for poison. Here is a quote from the Wissman flyer: “Their tight vocal harmonies and bluegrass instruments provide a powerful showcase for their close family relationships and love for Jesus Christ.”

I wish there was a written analog for the sound of gross disappointment.

To Grandma, I said, “Oh, so they’re into Jesus.”

She smiled that strangely discomfiting smile of hers and replied, “That’s how you make it in Branson.”

View their beauty (and virtue, and theme bible passages, and provincial aspirations) here.

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