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Johnny Cash — and His Impersonator — Meet ‘Branson’

When the documentary “Branson,” which comes to the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend, catches an ornery Johnny Cash impersonator named Jackson Cash playing for free lunch at a food court in a Branson, Missouri, mall, it was flashback time for me.

I’ve never been in the food court, but I was in that mall in the spring of 1992 — walking alongside the real Johnny Cash as he pushed a shopping cart through the men’s department of Wal-Mart.

He tossed eight pairs of black socks into the cart, threw in a pair of shiny black sweatpants … and then, in a mildly startling change of pace, opted for a pair of medium blue sweatpants as well. 

It was a difficult time for Cash, who’d decided that his future lay not on the music charts, on the radio or even on the road, but in the strange, unnervingly wholesome Ozarks resort of Branson.

He was building his own theater, and planning to settle down and play for crowds of tourists who flocked to Southern Missouri’s version of a gambling-free Vegas, a long stretch of cheap motels, go-cart tracks, miniature golf courses, water parks and dozens of country and pop music theaters. 

With that kind career change imminent for country music’s quintessential hardass — hell, why shouldn’t the Man in Black don a pair of blue pants?

So he put them in his cart, nodded to a few customers stunned to see him, and browsed a little more. His wife June was off looking at home furnishings, and he knew he had lots of time to kill. 

Then he stopped, frowned, pulled the blue sweatpants out of his cart, and gave them the once-over. 

“I don’t know,” he said slowly, turning to me. “Do you think these look a little fruity?” 

Without waiting for a reply, he put them back on the rack and headed for the checkout counter with a cart full of black.

Times may be tough for Jackson Cash in Branson in “Branson,” but they weren’t much better for the other J. Cash in that town. His backers ran out of money, his theater was never finished and his big plans were kaput within a couple of months of our Wal-Mart excursion — leaving him, fortuitously, free to sign a deal with Rick Rubin and pursue one of the most remarkable and stirring late-career revivals in the history of popular music.

So now Branson is apparently ready for a tortured, self-destructive, alcoholic Johnny Cash impersonator, by far the most indelible character in director Brent Meeske’s documentary about the town Mikal Gilmore once dubbed “sort of a hell’s waiting room where aging pop and country performers play their glory-days hits for people looking for music that appeals to their sense of nostalgia.” 

Call it the former-rock-crit snobbery bred of too many nights at the Whisky, but I had the same reaction during my three days in town. Andy Williams?  Tony Orlando? Some Japanese fiddle player who’d become the talk of the town?  No thanks.  

I did find one show worth attending: opening night of the short-lived Willie Nelson Theater, where Willie shared the stage with Merle Haggard, and I bought a Willie doll for my son. (FYI, a bearded, braided and stuffed Willie Nelson is definitely not the kind of toy even a music-savvy two-year-old will embrace.)

Turns out Meeske had the same kind of first impression, before working his way through it: “It’s a very different type of entertainment, and even a lot of people from Branson will admit that it’s corny,” he says. “But they own it, and they’re proud of it.”

It didn’t hurt that the reason Meeske had come to town, which was to make a movie about a group of performers on tour, fell apart. “We got to Branson,” he says, “and the cast revolted, locked themselves in their hotel rooms and refused to perform.” 

Stuck in town with a camera crew and a week to kill, he started shooting the cast of a ‘60s hit revue, and from there moved on to a few other intriguing local stories. After hours, meanwhile, he hung out at the one restaurant in town that served alcohol, which filled up with the town’s performers every night. 

“In the end,” he says, “Branson won me over.”

Once upon a time, Johnny Cash said the town won him over, too. “Many of my friends came here and built theaters, and they liked it,” he mused, sipping a Coke in the Wal-Mart snack bar while we waited for June to finish her shopping.  “It’s a place where I can … do what I like without having to hit the road. I feel good about it.”

I didn’t really believe him. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really believe himself, either.

I’m glad the money guys went belly-up and Cash didn’t have to settle into a life in Branson — and I’d bet that a few years down the line, with one of the more inspiring rejuvenations in American music well under way, he was glad as well.

But, you know, after seeing “Branson,” if I find myself in southern Missouri and Jackson Cash is playing at the Caravelle Theatre, I may head out on Highway 76 to catch the show.

But only after a stop at the Wal-Mart to see if they still sell those fruity sweatpants.