Nearly 60 years ago, Bob Mabe and his brothers—Jim, Lyle, and Bill—gathered up a guitar, a Dobro, a washtub bass, and the jawbone of a mule and headed for nearby Branson, then a small town in the lush lake country of the southern Missouri Ozarks.
Their first gig was playing for fishermen angling for trout in the cold deep waters of Lake Taneycomo. They also played the authentic old-time music required for square dances that were held in one of the many caves that vein through the limestone hills. “At 50 degrees, your hands on the guitar got a little cold,” laughs Bob, at 86 the sole surviving Mabe brother.
Within a year of their arrival, the brothers made Ozarks history as the first performers in what would become a lengthy playbill of shows that transformed rural Branson into what it is today, “the live music capital of the world,” and a destination for more than five million visitors annually, all of them lovers of traditional country music as performed by such big stars as Kenny Rogers and the Lennon Sisters. Most have come to visit such attractions as Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede and are appreciative of Branson’s reputation for good, clean Midwestern family-style fun.
“I told my brothers that before long we’d be making maybe $100 a week,” Mabe recalls with a grin. “It took about ten years, but we made a lot more than that.”
The show that the Mabes developed—the Baldknobbers Jamboree—remains one of the most popular acts in a town teeming with first-rate entertainment.
Still a family affair, and calling on a third generation of Mabes (and an expanded collection of instruments), from the get-go the Baldknobbers drew inspiration directly from the family’s Ozarks roots: Named after an infamous band of 19th-century vigilantes who once roamed the area, the Mabes Baldknobbers was a vaudeville-style hillbilly act to the hilt, from the scarecrow clothes, goofy expressions, and missing front teeth to what they played and how they played it.
“My brother played the washtub as a bass. He made a good bass out of it, too” Mabe says. The mule jawbone, he says, “is a great rhythm instrument” and playing a comb created an interesting “buzzing sound.”
Locals loved the insider hillbilly gags and humor. A few short years later, the rest of the country got the joke as celebrated by the hit TV sit-com The Beverly Hillbillies, which was filmed, in part, on location in Branson. (The series creator, Paul Henning, had the Ozarks in mind when he debuted the show in 1962.)
Baldknobbers humor suited Mabe to a T. “I love to make people laugh,” says Mabe, who plays guitar as well as fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. “In this old world we need that bad. That’s what it’s all about, making people laugh.
“We didn’t really care if we made money back then,” he says of the musicians that are as plentiful in the Ozarks as hickory sticks. “We’d meet at people’s houses to play, some folks would sing, some would jig dance, sometimes there would be a square dance or a round dance,” he says, adding, “I always played acoustic, never electric.” That was by desire but also out of necessity, since power didn’t come to Mabe’s part of the Ozarks until the 1940s.
Mabe moved on from the Baldknobbers 20 years after the group formed, opening Bob-O-Links Country Hoedown in Branson, complete with square dancers. He later sold it to Jimmy Osmond of the Osmond Brothers.
He also started the Kitchen Band, a traveling revue of country and gospel music that stopped at nursing homes and other organizations serving “people who are down and out. We did it all for free,” he says.
When asked if he ever thought that the brothers would achieve what they did, helping to transform Branson into one of the world’s premiere entertainment centers, Mabe chuckles: “Sweetheart, I never ever thought that. We just started playing. We loved the music.”
Watch a brief history of the Baldknobbers here:
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.