By Dave Woods
Digital market development manager
BRANSON, Mo. —
Clay Cooper has entertained in Branson for more than 26 years, and he knows why people keep coming back to his shows.
“They want to be entertained,” said Cooper, who lends his name to the Country Music Express show, as well as his Branson theater. “That’s why we have a big variety show.”
The variety show includes dancers, singers, trick-roping performers, comedians and even Cooper’s family -- his wife, son and daughter join him on stage nightly.
The 42-year-old showman said he could scale back the act and just stand in front of the band and sing. But that’s not his style.
“It wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining,” Cooper said.
Getting the audience involved in the performance is key to Cooper’s decades of success on the strip.
“The audience participation is what makes the show,” he said. “When you can get people involved, there’s not a wall between the front row and the stage. It’s like everybody is just hanging out in my living room. We’re chatting and singing, and they feel comfortable. We’re just real people having a good time.”
Cooper and his cast of 20 performers share their talents five shows a week at the Clay Cooper Theatre. The Country Music Express cast includes singer and comedian Matt Gumm; entertainer and longtime friend Joey Riley; rope slinger Johnny Lonestar; wife and business partner Tina Cooper; son Colton; and daughter Ezra Noel, the new 9-year-old addition to the lineup.
Much of the Country Music Express show is devoted to what Cooper’s audience wants and expects: Country music. Songs honoring cowboys and country music’s male legends dominate the first half of the show, during which Cooper pays tribute to his heroes, such as Conway Twitty.
“I love Conway,” Cooper said of the award-winning singer. “I saw him perform here in town lots of times when I was a teenager.”
Cooper said Twitty wasn’t a flashy entertainer, but he had a certain appeal to the ladies.
“The ladies loved him and his songs,” Cooper said. “The songs are seductive and sexy, lyric-written songs. There’s something about his music. He’d sit there and sing for an hour and a half and never even say ‘hello.’ He’d just sing song after song after song.”
Cooper said he has always enjoyed classic American country music artists, such as George Jones, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.
Twitty’s “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” is a Cooper favorite. The song hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country music charts in 1980, and Cooper said he has sung it to dozens of preacher’s wives.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “I’ve sang that (song) to them with their (preacher) husbands sitting in the front row watching, dying laughing in tears.”
Cooper acknowledges the song is “a little suggestive,” but he performs it for a family-friendly audience.
“You can be a Christian and love the Lord and have fun,” he said.
Cooper isn’t shy about expressing his personal beliefs during his show.
“I’ve always paid tribute to the Lord and patriotism,” he said. ”I’ve been in town 26 years and we’ve always done it. Everybody has their own way of doing things, but I want them to know how I feel. I know that I’ve been blessed by the good Lord.”
A collection of gospel songs ends the first half of the show. Cooper said honoring veterans and saluting the American way are important parts of his two-plus-hour variety show. Tina Cooper’s original song, “America Stand Strong,” regularly brings Branson audiences to their feet, Cooper said.
“That’s a pretty powerful song,” Cooper said. “I think a lot of younger kids don’t really know what happened in years past. I just started to really appreciate and understand what veterans did for us. ... A lot of kids have no idea, and I think they need to learn that. That’s why we recognize veterans.”