Review by Jason Wert
When I had the opportunity to review Clay Cooper’s Country Music Express, I jumped at the chance to see one of Branson’s staple artists. You can’t come to Branson without seeing Clay’s smiling face beaming down from one of what seems like 1,492,598 billboards along with his illuminated image adorning the Clay Cooper Theatre. I had last seen him many years ago, when the Country Express show was located down the strip at the Americana Theatre, and Clay was just one of the featured performers.
So is Clay Cooper’s Country Music Express worth your time, and more importantly, your money? Let’s dig in.
There are quite a few positives I took away from the show.
The “pre-show” opening act is rather entertaining. Singer/comedian/area worship leader(!) Matt Gumm runs a “silent movie” where he brings four guests out of the audience to act in a production of “Just Horse’n Around.” Basically, it’s your typical cowboy shoot-em-up where everyone ends up dead at the end but the fun comes in watching the guests try to minic the over-the-top antics of host Gumm. The audience members never take it to the level that Gumm will take the physical comedy, but it’s humorous to see the lengths to which they will go at Gumm’s prodding. There’s also a cameo from someone that’s amusing because you don’t expect to see them onstage during the crowd warm-up segment.
The show has a wide variety of talented performers. Cooper is obviously the star of the show, but I would venture the best vocalist on the stage is actually Kari Garrison. Given that Garrison has won Branson’s female vocalist of the year award, that’s probably not much of a surprise, but it says a lot about Cooper that he has no problem sharing the stage with a vocal talent that can upstage him. (I’ve known many a performer who couldn’t handle that situation.) Garrison has been a veteran of the Branson scene since 2001, including 8 years as a featured vocalist with Moe Bandy. Whether she’s impersonating Wynonna Judd or kicking the first half of the show into gear with a rousing version of “Long Time Gone.” Garrison is one of those talents that can command the stage just from her voice; you can lose track of what else is happening on the stage when she starts to perform.
Cooper vocally is at his best when he’s doing outlaw country. He’s strong on many of the other songs but outlaw country just seems to fit him the best. Whether he’s covering Johnny Paycheck, or David Allan Coe, or either Hank Sr. or Jr., it’s clear that Cooper is most at home in the badlands of the outlaw. I would really love to see him do a performance some time where he sticks to that era of country; a show filled with Waylon, Willie, Kris, Johnny, Jerry Jeff Walker, Haggard, Hank Jr., Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Charlie Daniels, or Joe Ely.
Cooper’s duet with his wife where he’s Johnny Cash and she’s June (which I’ll cover more in depth in a moment) is outstanding. The strength of those impressions shows not only an understanding of Johnny & June as artists but you can see the deep appreciation Clay and Tina have for the Cashes.
Matt Gumm is a surprisingly strong vocalist and outstanding comedian. Even if he did break character a few times because he was laughing (especially during the very entertaining “iComic 2.0/3.0” bit) he still managed to bring the much needed levity to the variety show. The bubbly joy that radiates from Gumm only enhances his comedic segments; you FEEL his enjoyment of what he’s doing on stage. (I’m going to put most of my critical comments later…but this wouldn’t really fit on its own…Clay and keyboardist R.P. Harrell need to shorten up the setup of the iComic routine just a bit.)
A major plus is the “impressions” segment during the second half of the show. Cooper and the team break out dead-on impressions of some of music’s best artists from the last 50 years. Clay and his wife, as I previously mentioned, absolutely nail Johnny & June Cash performing “Jackson.” Tina and Kari bring the Judds to life so well that if you close your eyes you can almost believe you’re listening to the real thing. While the boy band segment with the *NSYNC cover isn’t as vocally strong as the original, the guys do nail perfectly the boy band stage moves in perfect sync (pun intended) right down to the appropriate facial expressions. Using Clay’s youngest son in the Michael Jackson role in their Jackson 5 segment works because of his youth; being honest, he’s obviously still learning the craft. However, he does an admirable job for a 10-year-old.
And, well, they had a Bee Gees segment. They captured the real feeling of disco from the 1970s, meaning it left me feeling sick to my stomach. (Note for the humor impaired: that’s a joke taking a shot at disco, not Cooper & crew.)
The obligatory salute to veterans that you see in almost all Branson shows worked well because you could tell that Cooper truly respects our men and women who served the country; it wasn’t just something he had to do because in Branson this segment is expected at the end of shows. An interview segment between Cooper and men who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam was very interesting and in a way a real tease; I would have liked to have seen more of their conversation. Branson performers can get up on stage and talk about veterans all they want…there’s nothing like hearing the veterans themselves telling their stories about their time serving our country.
Now, some real praise to the dancers in Cooper’s show. One of the things that I always watch for in shows with dancers is how much they enhance or distract from the main performances on the stage; when they’re not the featured part of the show they shouldn’t pull you away from the singers or musicians. There was not a single point in the show where I felt the dancers were a distraction; even in the opening of the show when they spread to the stages to the left and right of the main stage you were never compelled to look at them versus Cooper or the singers. They’re also really good at their craft; I didn’t see a time where they were noticeably out of sync in their united routines.
The band was also very solid even if they didn’t really get featured that much during the actual show. If you paid attention, you could see the individual excellence they bring to the show, but one musician was especially notable: bassist Mark Evans. He held a strong bottom end throughout the entire show but there were moments you could see him elevating his performance with small licks and inflections that enhanced his sound; I appreciated the “little things” he was doing to take good songs and make them great.
Finally in the good column, Cooper has a natural ability to interact with his audience. He’s quick with a quip, and knows how to make a good natured jab in a way that’s not insulting. It’s a rare ability and outside of the overly sensitive who rush to social media with every perceived slight, almost all people will have a good time if they’re chosen by Clay for banter during the show. He might want to trim the first section where he does the audience banter a little…it felt like it was a few minutes too long.
Now, while there was a lot to praise, there were a few things that I didn’t like in the show.
Cooper himself started off the show flat. I honestly wondered about three songs in if he was feeling well and soldiering through the performance. His voice didn’t seem to be particularly strong; he also missed a few notes. He later commented it was their first morning show of the fall, and they came off a night show that had them at the theatre until after midnight, so the weakness of the vocal made more sense to me at that point. After the first few songs, he seemed to his hit stride, and was fine the rest of the show.
A few times Gumm’s performance during the “impressions” section of the show bothered me. The segment opens with a few performers covering the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Gumm plays the legendary Freddie Mercury. Gumm played the part almost in a mocking manner of Mercury’s flamboyance; I couldn’t tell if this was supposed to be a parody of Queen. I really think Gumm could do a really fantastic impression of Mercury if he focused on the stage movements rather than playing up the goofy teeth. It made me ask if the whole “impressions” segment was going to be parody; that’s probably not what Cooper wants the audience thinking at that moment.
The teeth thing also came back when he was doing his impression of Kix Brooks from Brooks and Dunn; it just felt unnecessary. Given that the rest of the impressions segment seemed to focus on being the closest to the real thing that they could be, Gumm’s performance seemed out of place in those two instances.
Again, let me clear, I understand Gumm’s the “comic relief” of the show. It’s just in those two specific instances the comedy seemed to detract from the show and not enhance it.
It also felt at times like the energy level of the show was muted. It’s not that I feel every Branson music show has to be a “high energy spectacular” or that adrenaline needs to be pumping all the time, but I had a general feeling like they were at the cusp of moving the show into the next level but never actually made that last push. It’s almost as if they were in the space between blowing the audience away and mailing it in (more toward the blowing us away end) and there was some indecision on which way to go; perhaps that is due to the fact it was their first morning show of the fall after a show the prior night.
Here’s where I break out a sports analogy to end the review: the show reminds me of a star quarterback that’s just shy of the top. The kind of guy that you would want running your offense, that you would have no problem drafting, but they’d be 4th or 5th on your wish list. Excellent, but not elite; consistently would deliver what you would expect of them and might show flashes of going further but never quite breaking through that barrier. They’re worth the money and the time you give to them.