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W.Va.: The start of it all

By Staff | Nov 24, 2008

The WWVA Jamboree opened at midnight on April 1, 1933 in the Capitol Theater in Wheeling and was broadcast on WWVA from the nearby Hawley Building. WWVA 1170AM is the only 50,000-watt radio station in the state of West Virginia, and it reaches 18 northeastern states and six Canadian provinces. The Jamboree is second only to the Grand Ole Opry in country music tradition. It has rich roots in vaudeville, with its music interspersed with intermittent comedy spots and folksy story telling which pre-dates NPR’s long running “Prairie Home Companion.”

What we now know as country music had its beginnings in the WWI era when two new technologies appeared, radio and recording. Entrepreneurs found that they could go into the rural Appalachian Mountains, record the indigenous musicians and market the music to the isolated rural populations of the South and Midwest. As time passed, a culture developed of these professional entertainers performing this style of music. This time is often referred to as “the hillbilly era” of country music. Performers played short live radio shows in the early morning to entertain the farmers when they were having breakfast and then went out in the evenings and played shows in grange halls and one room school houses in the surrounding area. This was called “the kerosene circuit” as often there was no electricity in the small farm communities. This gave birth to shows on high-powered radio stations like the Jamboree on WWVA in Wheeling, the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago, and the Louisiana Hat ride on KWKH in Shreveport. Outside of the Grand Old Opry, the Jamboree has survived all the rest.

The Birth of the Capitol Music Hall

Early country music was brought out of the Appalachian Mountains, heavily influenced by the Celtic and Gaelic roots of the people in those “hollers.” With simple arrangements and beautiful harmonies, it is also called “mountain music.” It is performed primarily on acoustic instruments, including guitars, banjos and fiddles, and sometimes the autoharp, which identifies this Celtic-Appalachian rooted music. “Bluegrass” music is a term coined and distinguished by the extremely distinctive style of banjo picking invented by Bill Monroe’s protege and “Bluegrass Boy” Earl Scruggs, which sets it apart from mountain music. Bluegrass is a music of sharing, where every musician gets to play. You may first hear the melody on the banjo, which is then echoed and improvised upon by successive instruments; the mandolin, the dobro, the fiddle, until everyone has had their chance to shine.

The term “hillbilly,” an American nickname for mountain folk in Appalachia which has come to be a term of derision, originated in Ulster, Scotland and dates back to the victory of William, Prince of Orange, over King James II of England in 1690. Scottish settlers in the hill-country of Appalachia brought their traditional music with them to the new world, and many of their songs and ballads dealt with William. Supporters of King William were known as “Orangemen” and “Billy Boys,” and their American counterparts were soon referred to as “hillbillies.”

The 80-year history behind this landmark music venue is colorful and poignant. It has hosted some of the biggest names in show business, and was visited by many celebrities in its time.  The theater is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. With the Capitol Music Hall, Wheeling remains one of the most important destinations in West Virginia where thousands of events have been held.

The Capitol Music Hall first opened in 1928 on Thanksgiving Day as the Capitol Theater. It remains the largest and oldest theater in the state of West Virginia, and is a beautiful example of Art Deco at its height. The final cost of the project was $1 million. The classic red marquee illuminated the sky and the entrance to the theater for hundreds of country music superstars. It emits a certain grandeur and affluence with its rich decor and unique architecture and evokes an elegant old time feeling as only an older theater can do. An aureate ceiling design, balcony, rich upholstery and statuary are other highlights of the theater. In recent years the Capitol underwent some renovations. The lights and sound equipment were overhauled and two large screens were added. The acoustics have always been excellent, and continue to receive rave reviews from all the musicians who play there.  

When the Jamboree began, the country was deep in the midst of the Great Depression.  Jobs were scarce, and people were hungry in more ways than one. They were hungry for a means to make a living, but were also hungry for the opportunity to escape daily drudgery that was afforded by tuning in to the radio on Saturday nights. The Jamboree was nurtured by the hard work ethics of immigrants and blue-collar workers, who toiled hard, and lived a hard life, but still loved and thrived in that life. They were dairy farmers and coal miners and steel mill workers, with calloused hands and cheerful hearts. These grassroots are evident in its simple traditions: farmers who traveled to Wheeling for the Saturday night show started the ringing of cowbells. They would ring their farm cowbells when the show was on the air, so their family could hear them, and know that they had made it to the show. It became a tradition that stuck, and can still be heard by Jamboree fans on the live broadcasts today.

The heyday of the Jamboree was in the 1970s. People fondly recall the old days when the streets of Wheeling were packed with thousands of people, intersections were clogged with cars, and tour buses lined the streets. The Bridge Tavern and the Sesame Cafe were both jumping in those days, feeding and watering the likes of Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and June Carter. Charlie Pride appeared for four sold-out shows in 1972, performing for over 10,000 people. Brad Paisley got his start at the Jamboree, one of his early shows is now available on YouTube and features Brad singing Richie Valens’ “La Bamba.”

The Pillars of the

Wheeling Jamboree

No mention of the Wheeling Jamboree would be complete without a respectful nod to Doc and Chickie Williams, the “Royal Couple of Country Music,” and their innumerable contributions to country music and the Jamboree in particular. Although Chickie passed in 2007, Doc is now 94 years old and enjoying his retirement. His daughter, Barbara “Peeper” Williams, said he no longer gives interviews, but is pleased about the new efforts to revive and maintain this uniquely American musical tradition. Their grandson, Andy McKenzie, is the newly installed mayor of Wheeling, and has pledged to keep the Capitol and the Jamboree high on the priority list for Wheeling. 

Ed Mahonen, banjo player on the Jamboree staff band from 1974-76, and frequent visitor with various other bluegrass bands throughout the 1980s and early 1990s saw the 1980s as “… the decade of big hair and hard rock,” which contributed to the decline of interest in down home old fashioned country style and bluegrass music. Further contributing to the demise of the Jamboree’s radio show was the decision of most AM stations to adopt a “talk show” format. This tendency led people to search elsewhere for their access to music.  Another Jamboree staff band alumnus, pianist Jamie Peck agreed that the ‘80s were hard for the Jamboree, and also stated that “The Nashville machine has homogenized country music,” leaving little room for the more traditional grassroots musical artists.

Roger Hoard, brilliant and innovative guitarist, and member of the Fabulous Bender Boys, joined the Jamboree in 1968 when they were performing out on Wheeling Island, and was with the staff band over 30 years, until 2005. Roger is currently the secretary of the new Board of the Wheeling Jamboree.

“The Jamboree is back where it started.  It has come full circle, but the wave of the future is in the Internet,” Roger said.

Jeff McCamic, Wheeling attorney and Jamboree Board President, agreed, and noted that the Jamboree Web site has had over 20,000 hits just since October.  Listeners on the Net include addresses from all over the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Caribbean and the Russian Federation. There is also a rising number of troops stationed overseas who tune in for the sounds of home.  Recent performers on the live radio show have been asked to “give a shout out” to listeners in Los Angeles and other remote Internet locations.

In 2005, the Jamboree USA’s doors were closed at the Capitol, where it had made its permanent home since 1969. It is estimated that between $1-6 million would be required to get it up to building and fire code standards. Although there have been some very limited engagements, with firefighters in attendance on stand-by, the theater remains closed.  Primary issues with the facility are 23 fire code violations, most of them for sprinklers and alarms. There are concerns that the capacity is not practical for large name acts to perform there. It seats only 2,450, which some believe is much smaller than any large act wants to perform for, and yet too large to be viable for smaller local or regional acts to draw a large enough crowd.  The Wheeling Symphony had also made its home there. The Capitol Theater is currently owned by Live Nation, and listed for sale for $850,000. 

New Names and New Locations

The Wheeling Jamboree now has a new name, new faces and new locations. “The Wheeling Jamboree” is now a 501-c-3 non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the tradition of the Jamboree, renovating the Capitol, and providing opportunities for musical education. During the summer months, the temporary home of the Saturday Jamboree shows will be Brush Run Park in St. Clairsville, Ohio, which is the site of the original Jamboree in the Hills.  Long term, there are logistical problems in using this site, in that the area does not support tour busses or large numbers of tourists for extended periods of time.

It is interesting that the very conditions that brought about the birth of the Jamboree seem to be in place again. The economy is in a recession, gas prices are high, and people are not going out to see live music. The Jamboree was born of grassroots musicians, and is returning to the grassroots level, only this time, through the help of technology, primarily radio and Internet streaming broadcasts. The Jamboree has in its history lived a rather peripatetic existence; like a poor hobo down on his luck in the Great Depression, it travels door-to-door, seeking friends and support.

The new board’s short term plan for the winter months will have the Jamboree show broadcasting from the WV Business College on Main Street in Wheeling, with other possible larger studio locations being considered. But long term, everyone holds high hopes the Capitol will be renovated and re-opened, and the Jamboree will return home.

Everyone would love to see the streets of Wheeling crowded with tour busses once more. It has been estimated that the Jamboree, and the summer’s Jamboree in the Hills generate between $10 and $15 million dollars in annual revenue for the Ohio Valley and greater Wheeling area. One would think that the project would be of greater priority than it currently seems to be.

It is unfortunate that this grand old tradition of the Jamboree and the landmark Capitol building has not received more local and statewide support. On the other hand, there appears to be little support for many of the cultural programs in the Ohio Valley, such as Oglebay Institute, Towngate Theater or Artworks Around Town. Much like the New Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty, Wheeling residents have traditionally not made up the majority of the Jamboree fan base. It comes primarily from out of town, from busses from Canada and Kentucky, Maine and Maryland.

The Wheeling Jamboree maintains a Web site at: www.wheelingjamboree.org. You can get more information on the history of the Jamboree, and also hear the show live on the Web. The Board of the Wheeling Jamboree welcomes contact by bluegrass and country musicians and bands interested in performing on the Saturday night show. They also welcome any donations or financial support, and would be delighted to hear from anyone who loves old-fashioned country and bluegrass music and wants to volunteer their services to the revitalization efforts. And when the shows are up and running live again in the spring, they welcome all those fans to come out of the closet and join them for a musical experience that will get their fingers snapping and their toes tapping. There is nothing like authentic old-fashioned country music to get people up and dancing their troubles away.

Those who want to get in touch with their West Virginia musical heritage, and re-kindle that sound and nostalgia from yesteryear can sample the sounds of the Wheeling Jamboree by tuning in to WWVA 1170AM on Saturday nights at 6:30, or the simulcast on the Web site, to hear new and old bluegrass and country music from the home of the original Jamboree in Wheeling, W.Va.

Robin Mahonen is the daughter of the late Jimmy Knepper, internationally reknowned and Grammy nominated jazz trombonist, and the wife and musical partner of Ed “Uncle Eddie” Mahonen.  You can contact Robin at rmahonen@graffitiwv.com.