Jambo Country – An Unpopular Perspective

Since 1977, every July in the Ohio Valley has meant one thing: Jamboree In The Hills.  “The Superbowl of Country Music” as it has been touted over the years, has boasted a who’s who of country legends including Johnny Cash, Alabama, Reba McEntire, George Jones, The Judds, Willie Nelson, and Garth Brooks (the list really goes on), and has hosted several million patrons in its 40-year run.

While most other concerts (especially in the time of its inception) have been single-evening affairs, “Jambo”, as it is affectionately shortened, has grown into a 4-day mega conclave. Campers and tents begin filling up the neighboring acreage as early as two weeks before the first wristband is checked, with motorhomes streaming down the I-70 off ramps in what can only be described as a pilgrimage. Many patrons reserve vacations each year in order to experience the event, which attracts a wide range of ages and personalities from around the globe.

In addition to the overall magnitude of the situation, Jambo has had a few other trademarks that have set it apart from other concerts. One unique aspect is known to veterans of the ceremony as the “Redneck Run”, where eager concert-goers begin by lining up before the gates open for a black-Friday style mad dash to secure a prime spot in the natural amphitheater. This televised all-out bedlam has been quite the spectacle over the decades, especially during particularly rainy mornings (more than a few Jambos have included mudslides as attractions within the gates).

Maybe most cherished by fans is the long tradition of bringing their own beverages. While most venues are selling $12 beers and $8 waters, Jamboree In The Hills has probably seen a hundred thousand coolers or more in its lifetime, with many notable examples over the decades, including containers decorated to look like treasure chests, coffins, tractors, and cars, many with creative paint jobs; at least a couple motorized coolers have cruised around the grounds as well.

Rumors fly every year about drastic changes to the experience. “They’re going to ban coolers!” “They’re going to shorten the show!” “They’re going to move Jamboree In The Hills to another location!” Each year, these worries come and go; people lose their minds leading up to the next year’s ticket pre-sales where the fears are always shown to be unfounded.

Until this year.

Recently, the same old rumors crept across social media like hot tar on a trailer roof, and like every year before, I laughed. “People say this stuff every year! It’s nonsense,” I said. Unfortunately, the fears weren’t baseless this time around: Starting in 2017, the event will be renamed “Jambo Country”, no coolers will be permitted, and the festival will shrink to three days instead of four. The long-standing tradition of Neal McCoy closing out Sunday evenings will come to an end after years of watching Neal turn light poles and speaker towers into monkey bars—which caused concern to promoters and organizers almost annually—and the fans couldn’t get enough.

The news has stirred deep emotions of betrayal in fans around the world, and the backlash has been swift and fierce. Longtime devotees and even folks who never have and never would attend Jamboree In The Hills (or likely any other country music concert) have flooded the business’s Facebook page with 1-star reviews and comments tantamount to hate mail. Promises to never return to the venue are rolling off tongues like New Year’s Resolutions.

The entire community is in an uproar, and I get it. The news of the changes have come like a sword in the back, cold and uncaring. Jamboree In The Hills is a part of the fabric of the local economy and its elements are part of the atmosphere. But I must propose a question to the masses of hurt, angry people confused and bewildered by this new reality: Can’t we at least agree this is better than losing the event altogether?

As previously mentioned, the perennial rumors have often included anxious murmurs of Jamboree In The Hills moving to another venue entirely, possibly to a place like New York. Are we in the Ohio Valley dedicated to an unchanged Jamboree In The Hills in a far off state? Would we rather see an intact event moved or an amended festival remain in Belmont County?

The rumor mill hasn’t been the only annual trend. For those of us who grew up a stone’s throw from the grounds, something else has been evident—the yearly influx of visitors to the site has dwindled slightly each year for the past decade or more. In the 1980s, the two-week period leading up to Jambo was a nightmare for traffic. Local road travel was absolutely brutal, with vendors lining both sides of National Road for miles in either direction at least 10 days before the show, and even Interstate 70 would be backed up for a mile or more both ways. In the 1990s and 2000s, the lines got shorter and more manageable, and vendors were popping up each year in fewer numbers and setting up later than before. By the time the 2010s rolled around, the traffic had become essentially a non-issue, and vendors were limited to a handful outside the main gates of the venue. Whispers of a hemorrhage of money circulated. Alas, the event is not the juggernaut it used to be.

Live Nation Entertainment, who currently owns the rights to the event, is no stranger to controversy, but is also no newcomer to successful music ventures. A common reaction to the recent changes to Jamboree In The Hills has been to accuse Live Nation of “killing” the event by throwing traditions like coolers out the window. As anyone who has ever worked behind the scenes in a business knows, traditions can hamstring an enterprise as effectively as someone stealing money right out of a cash register.

With a number of traditions failing to generate the kinds of revenue that keeps events like these going, changes must be made. Whatever alterations are being undertaken, I’m certain they’re not being made to spite anyone, and surely not to “kill” the event. If Live Nation can’t keep the event both where it is and how it is, wouldn’t you prefer they at least keep the location? A different version of something is a lot better than nothing, right?

If getting together with friends to drink canned beer out of a cooler is your only reason to attend Jamboree In The Hills, couldn’t you get together with your friends in your garage and do it? Sure, but Jambo is so much more than that. It’s a release—the music is loud, the sun is hot, the beer is cold, the company is fun, and if you have blood in your veins, you will find no shortage of eye candy at the event in every shape and size. No one goes just for the music. No one goes just for the beer. No one goes just for the name “Jamboree In The Hills”.  Jambo is larger than the sum of its parts. People go because people go. It’s a great party, and if you’re thinking about skipping next year’s event, I hope you reconsider. Even though you’re hurt and you want to strike back, there’s nothing like those electric crowds in the rolling hills of Belmont County the third week of July, and you know it.

– Jacob H Moore


~ by hamiltonjacobs on December 6, 2016.

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