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Rise of a country-music mecca in Branson, Missouri, sparks Nashville to make a live-music comeback

LIKE a shrill alarm clock awakening a slumbering giant, the tiny town of Branson, Mo., has sent a jolt through the city of Nashville in recent years.

``Branson was a wake-up call,'' acknowledges Marguerite Sallee, head of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

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``It reminded us that we needed more [music] venues and more destination opportunities.''

While Nashville was coasting on its rich musical history, Branson threatened to ride America's resurgent interest in country music and become the new ``Music City USA.''

Last year, the southern Missouri town of 3,500 attracted more than 5 million visitors to its 35 theaters.

Those tourists, who came for the abundance of live entertainment that had faded out in Nashville, left behind $1.5 billion that might once have been spent in Tennessee.

Nashville got the message, though.

Hundreds of concerts and live music shows are being held in Music City this year.

Nashville is no longer depending on the Grand Ole Opry, a well-known musical radio show aired continuously since 1925, to draw crowds.

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In addition to the Opry, which has been broadcast from the Opryland theme park every Friday and Saturday night since 1974, there is now ``Nashville On Stage.''

Billed as a ``five-month extravaganza,'' it offers more than 700 country music concerts and shows at three Opryland theaters from May to October.

Big-name, contemporary country music stars have joined the list of old-time country legends who regularly made the rounds in Nashville.

In April, Nashville's first breakfast theater opened, replicating a successful operation in Branson. ``Breakfast theaters started in Branson three years ago,'' says Dianne Turnage, general manager of the Nashville Breakfast Theater. ``Now there are 12 breakfast theaters there.''

The Nashville Breakfast Theater offers an 8 a.m. country-style breakfast buffet followed by a 90-minute musical show.

``The motor coaches come through several times a week,'' Ms. Turnage says, adding ``Many of our customers are retired people who get up early and are looking for some entertainment at that hour.''

Now that Nashville's leadership has started defending the Music City title, they are hoping to use it to propel the city forward.

``We are trying to position Nashville as a leading second-tier city,'' Ms. Sallee says. ``And we are working hard to leverage our entertainment culture. Our goal is to create the most exciting entertainment culture outside of New York City.''

Sallee knows that's an ambitious undertaking. ``New York City will always be special, and it's a world-class city,'' she says. ``But within the United States, there is really no other city known for entertainment. So that's our goal.''

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