BRANSON Mo.- —
Clay Cooper is proud of his country music variety show.
The 39-year-old has entertained Branson audiences for more than 24 years, but this season is special. This season, the Branson veteran’s name isn’t only on the marquee -- it’s on the theater.
“It was pretty expensive and we ain’t done yet,” Cooper said of the makeover of his theater at 3216 W. Highway 76.
“It’s totally exciting. I’ve been in Branson a long time and have a reputation, a following and I’ve got a big production. Now, I have a first class venue to back up the product. People will drive by and say, ‘Look at that beautiful theater.’ We expect big things there.”
The New Clay Cooper Theatre sets across the highway from Branson’s Titanic Museum Attraction and is home to five shows. Cooper headlines the theater’s lineup with his show, Country Music Express. Banjo picker Buck Trent, percussion duo Buckets and Boards and Swinging Doors Classic Country round out the theater’s regular lineup of shows.
Building the relationship
About 10 minutes before his show begins, Cooper takes the stage to meet the audience. He asks the crowd questions and pokes a little good-natured fun at a few of them.
“It’s my own little preshow,” Cooper said. “I started doing it about three years ago. It established a relationship before the show even starts. I’m just a good ol’ boy and we are going to have a down-home good time. I think that’s what they see.”
After the “howdys” are out of the way, it’s time to get serious about the music.
Cooper’s show pays tribute to country music’s legends. The songs of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., Ronnie Milsap, Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings keep the audience tapping their toes and clapping their hands.
“I love the low baritone, outlaw, rowdy, good ol’ country stuff,” Cooper said. “I can remember the first time I ever heard a Merle Haggard song. I still believe he’s the greatest country singer ever.”
Cooper comes by his appreciation of country classics honestly, he said. His father used to play opry shows in Texas, and he was a fan of Ronnie Milsap. Cooper said he was impressed by Milsap’s talent and courage.
“Every time he’d come to town I’d go watch him in concert. He’s amazing,” Cooper said. “He’s a blind man and he would climb up on his piano and walk across the top of it and get up close to the edge É man, he’s a heck of an entertainer.”