At last, a book has appeared tracing the heritage of the Ozark Opry, the long-running country music show at Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks. The book is Dan William Peek’s Live! At the Ozark Opry [http://www.amazon.com/Live-Ozark-Opry-William-Peek/dp/1596290986]. Launched in 1953 by Lee and Joyce Mace, a pair of young jig dancers, the Ozark Opry was innovative entertainment. It brought together talented local and regional musicians playing violin, banjo, guitar, bass, and other instruments such as saxophone and trumpet, with old-time country singing, square and jig dancing, and vaudeville comedy sketches to create an influential and successful modern-day minstrel show. For many years, among the fine traditional fiddlers gracing the Ozark Opry was LeRoy Haslag of Loose Creek, Missouri. This essay started out as a book review but grew like Topsy.
Branson may be the center of today’s opry universe, but it was not always so. The Ozark Opry anticipated and created the template for the Branson country music shows that began in 1959 in Southwest Missouri, around Lake Taneycomo and the village of Branson. In its heyday the Ozark Opry competed successfully with Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
A young Miller County couple, Lee and Joyce Mace began in the 1940s winning square dance contests, and both were famous for doing their old-time Missouri-style jig dancing steps while square dancing. Proud of his Osage Indian blood, Lee Mace was a fiddler and guitarist but eventually made the upright “slap” bass his principal instrument. Lee got his public performance start after service in World War II, when he played dances in fiddle bands at the annual three-day picnics along the Osage River in the Miller County seat of Tuscumbia – events fondly recalled by fiddle tune collector R.P. Christeson in his tune books and interviews.
During the post-World War II square dance boom, the Maces formed an ensemble called the Lake of the Ozarks Square Dancers, and they were the first to dance on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry with taps on their shoes. (Opry management insisted on calling them the Grand Ole Opry Square Dancers.) The group brought audiences to their feet, and WSM offered them ongoing jobs on the Grand Ole Opry show. Lee and Joyce Mace spurned the Nashville scene, however, unhappy with the trend there toward modern and pop-flavored country music. Instead, the Maces stayed in Missouri, their Ozark Opry helping lead the evolution of the country music entertainment business and tourism industry in the Lake of the Ozarks region.