Jamboree in the Hills reunites old friends

MORRISTOWN — Since 1977, thousands of fans have gathered each year in the rolling hills of Eastern Ohio to take part in the longest-running country music festival in America — Jamboree in the Hills.

Jamboree, often called Jambo or abbreviated as JITH, began as a modest, two-day outdoor music festival. On July 16, 1977, at Brush Run Park just west of in St. Clairsville, Glenn Reeves and Jerry Brightman brought Jamboree in the Hills into being. Country music greats such as Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Merle Haggard were among the first performers to take the stage.

The event since has grown to a four-day, annual festival, bringing in more than 100,000 people in combined attendance throughout the weekend each year. The current outdoor amphitheater, at its second site since 1977, is enhanced by speaker towers and jumbotron TV screens so that attendees seated at the top of the hill with their canopies can enjoy the show.

Fans from all over the United States, Canada and many other parts of the world pitch tents and park campers all around the amphitheater and throughout the immediate region, filling nearby campgrounds, front yards and backyards alike. Those fans then haul wagons and carts loaded with lawn chairs, snacks, bottled water, beer and ice into the concert venue.

But fans don’t just gather in rural Belmont County to see the latest superstars hit the stage. They also come back year after year to meet up with old friends. That’s one of the things Rich Lowe of Bellaire said keeps him coming back.

“It’s only four days a year. After so many years, you get to know all the people. They keep coming back,” he said. “You have to show up every year so you can see all your friends again.”

Jamboree in the Hills, which also is known as the Super Bowl of Country Music, is one of the largest and most celebrated annual events of the genre. The concert range is so large that it is home to its own post office and on-site emergency ward staffed by East Ohio Regional Hospital that has, in the past, even delivered babies on the grounds. There is a photo aisle in front of the stage where fans can walk through and take snapshots of their favorite country music artists.

In 2006, the barn-like stage used to showcase performers underwent a facelift. It was torn down and replaced with a bigger stage to better suit the hillside amphitheater. There also is an area on site where fireworks are ignited on a designated night during the concert.

Normally country music stars such as Jason Aldean, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift or even Neal McCoy, who has become a fan favorite as he has performed during the festival for 21 years, are the main focus of the concert. But entertainers from other genres also have shared the stage through the years, including Kid Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, 38 Special, “Weird Al” Yankovic, the Beach Boys and the Steve Miller Band.

The event has been carried on Wheeling radio stations every year since its inception, having originally grown out of WWVA-AM’s live Jamboree radio show. WOVK-FM is now the sole radio home for the JITH broadcast. Portions of the show are also covered live on local TV, aside from a few performers who decline to be televised.

No Jambo would be complete without one of its most sacred rituals. Each morning during the event, hundreds of country music fans line up and, when instructed to “go,” stampede through the gate with their tarps and try to secure their desired viewing spot inside the venue. This is often a muddy and chaotic race that has been dubbed “The Redneck Run.” The event has even appeared on a segment of “Today.”

In addition to being a longstanding Ohio Valley summer tradition, JITH is a boon to local businesses. Many area stores, gas stations and restaurants do brisk business feeding the hungry visitors and meeting their needs for snacks, beer, ice, sunscreen and rain gear.

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