Since 1933, Wheeling Jamboree has been West Virginia’s premier live audience country music program and one of the most successful programs of its sort in the country. Over the years, many country stars have had lengthy associations with the show, including Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Lee Moore, Doc and Chickie Williams, and Big Slim the Lone Cowboy (Harry C. McAuliffe). Major artists affiliated with the Jamboree for shorter periods include the Bailey Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, Hank Snow, Mac Wiseman, and Grandpa Jones. Popular regional favorites who have appeared on the program at various times include Silver Yodelin’ Bill Jones, the Lilly Brothers, and the trio Cap, Andy, and Flip. Prominent guest performers have included Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, and West Virginia natives Kathy Mattea and Brad Paisley.
The first Jamboree broadcast originated from the radio station WWVA on January 7, 1933. The show began broadcasting from the stage of the Capitol Theatre in downtown Wheeling on April 1, 1933. From 1934 to 1969, the program was broadcast from different Wheeling theaters, but the show returned to the Capitol Theatre in 1969 and remained there until 2005.
When WWVA became a 50,000-watt station in October 1942, the Jamboree’s radio audience became much larger. George Smith (d. 1946) served as WWVA program director from 1931 and provided the business leadership that made the program a success. From December 1942 until mid-1946, wartime shortages and a reduction in leisure travel led to the show being only a studio production, with no audience present. For a time in the mid-’50s, the CBS radio network carried a portion of the Jamboree every third week. Initially known as the Midnight Jamboree, the Wheeling program soon became the World’s Original Jamboree, and in the late 1960s the official title became Jamboree USA. The program became the Wheeling Jamboree in 2009.
The Jamboree’s long association with the Capitol Theatre ended in 2005 when the theater changed hands. WWVA continued to air reruns of the program, and several live studio shows were produced. Stage productions resumed in 2008 in different locations, including the Strand Theatre in Moundsville. In 2008, after a 75-year run, WWVA ceased broadcasts of the Jamboree, but the show was picked up by another station, WKKX-AM. The Jamboree began broadcasting from the theater of Wheeling Island Hotel, Casino & Racetrack on October 6, 2012.
Today the Jamboree and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry are the only survivors of a genre that once included the Chicago Barn Dance, Louisiana Hayride and other shows. For decades the Wheeling Jamboree played a significant role in the development of country music as an American art form, being especially important in reaching audiences in the rural regions north and east of Wheeling and extending into Canada.
This Article was written by Ivan M. Tribe
Last Revised on November 28, 2012
Tribe, Ivan M. Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.