Editor’s note: Here in the Ohio Valley, the third weekend in July has meant an annual pilgrimage to Jamboree In The Hills for a lot of local country music fans. But for the first time in over 40 years, Jamboree In The Hills will not be held in 2019. If you’re one of the folks longing for your yearly JITH fix, Weelunk has you covered. Over the next few days, take a walk down memory lane with us as we share some tales of “ghosts of Jambos past” in our Jambo Reboot series.
Butch Smith has attended 41 of the 42 Jamboree In The Hills music festivals. In 1977, a friend from his hometown of Dennison, Ohio, mentioned that a new country music concert was being held in July at Brush Run Park. Butch thought, “What the hell? Let’s give it a try!” And his WTH moment became a summer tradition that lasted for the next four decades of his life.
IN THE BEGINNING
In the early years, Butch and his pals would sleep in an old station wagon that they parked in a farmer’s field near the venue. They would remove the spare tire from the car’s cargo area and fill it with ice, beer and snacks. When the summer heat became unbearable, Butch would cool off with a dip in a pond on the farmer’s property that also served as a watering hole for the farm’s livestock. The farmer caught him once, but only laughed at the sight of the man in his dirty cattle pond. “Just don’t mess with my cows!” was the farmer’s only admonishment.
Over the years, nearby farmers such as this one came to not only tolerate such use of their property by festival attendees but actually began to embrace it. Farmers and other neighbors began sharing in the fun (and the profits to be made) by renting camping lots and parking spaces and supplying amenities such as hot showers and food.
GOOD TIMES, GOOD FRIENDS
As time went on, Butch began bringing his friends to what was now officially “Jamboree In The Hills.” At first, only a handful of friends at a time were interested in joining him, but soon he was introducing dozens of acquaintances to the one-of-a-kind Jambo atmosphere. Butch estimates that over the course of 42 years, he has probably invited over 800 people to Morristown to party away the third weekend in July.
He made friends with a crew of regulars from the Ohio Valley Jaycees, and they camped together in Campground A for over 15 years. “They would always get there first and save me a spot,” Butch says. “Great people!”
There weren’t as many governing rules in the early years of the festival. Butch remembers that security wasn’t nearly as tight, and the Redneck Run didn’t yet exist. He had a friend named Harry who planned to jump the fencing early in the morning and then Army-crawl through the grass undetected (at least in his mind!) in order to score a front-row seat.
“He said he was going to crawl like Rambo, but he would call himself ‘Jambo’ instead!” chuckles Butch. That phrase caught on, and Butch believes it was then that the event began to be known by its shortened nickname. Butch himself once spent an entire night dozing in a Porta-Jon so that he could snag a prime seat first thing the next morning. (Kids: Butch warns, “Don’t try this at home!”)
In addition to fewer rules, there was sometimes easy access to the backstage area, and Butch has had the good fortune to meet a number of country music legends over the decades. He has become friendly with crowd favorite Neal McCoy and has hung out with Neal backstage on several occasions.
One year in the early ’90s, Butch recalls, he was strolling the grounds near the stage during his early-morning “walkabout.”
“My good friend Ron Retzer (of the Jamboree stage band 1170) came driving by and asked where I was going,” Butch tells Weelunk. “I said I was just on a walkabout. He told me to hop in.” Ron proceeded to pull up backstage where some tour buses were unloading.
“Out of one bus came Lorrie Morgan, carrying coffee and donuts! And across the way was Sammy Kershaw!” recalls Butch. After sharing a donut and a cup of joe with the stars, he casually continued his walkabout — probably headed to that cow pond for his morning swim after enjoying breakfast with two major country celebrities of the time.
For that was the beauty of Jamboree In The Hills — fans of all backgrounds rubbed elbows, raised a toast and became friends. Rich, poor, Republican, Democrat — none of those everyday labels was relevant in the “Hills.” Everyone became one big patriotic redneck family for four days each summer, celebrating freedom, friendship and frivolity.
WHEN BUTCH MET SUSIE
Also in the early ’90s, Butch suffered the misfortune of losing his job in Dennison. However, he was able to find employment in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and he moved north to be closer to his new position. He made friends in his new town, but didn’t have a special woman in his life. One night, he and a friend visited a local bar called the Melody Inn.
“There was a pretty woman at the end of the bar, almost holding court,” Butch remembers with a smile. “She was laughing and talking to everyone — she was obviously the life of the party.”
Butch was intrigued and asked his friend, “Who’s the woman at the end of the bar?” His friend said her name was Susie. Butch watched Susie from his seat at the bar all that evening, itching to get to know her better but not wanting to seem too forward. The following night, he returned to the Melody Inn, and there was Susie again on her stool at the far end of the bar.
Butch decided he wasn’t going to let this chance to meet her pass him by, although there was a handsome, nicely dressed man in a suit and tie sitting next to her. The gentleman appeared to be flaunting his wealth, fondling a fat wad of bills on the bar in front of him in an attempt to impress Susie. The man’s presence did not deter Butch, however; he approached Susie and introduced himself even though he had no such stack of cash to show off. She smiled and said her name was Susie Dennison.
“I took that as a good sign,” says Butch. “Her last name was the name of the town where I grew up.” As Butch and Susie chatted, the man in the suit interrupted and offered to buy Susie a drink. She politely declined. It was a “carpe diem” moment for Butch. Seeing his opportunity, he offered to buy her a round himself. She smiled sweetly at him as she accepted. Susie then turned to the well-dressed man and said, “Money can never buy me!” Butch, a sentimental man at heart, knew immediately that he wanted to get to know this feisty woman better.
When asked how their relationship blossomed after that fateful night, Butch laughs. “I like to say it was like cats,” he says. “You feed ’em, and they just keep coming back!” He asked her to dinner, and after he started “feeding” Susie, the two became inseparable and remained that way for the next 26 years.
In 1994, Susie joined Butch at Campground A, and he introduced her to his Jambo camping buddies. Susie fit right in with the crowd and was soon an integral part of the annual traditions.
“We kept going even when we were getting older,” Butch says. “We still enjoyed it. As the years went on, we lost some good friends who passed away.”
In the years that followed, Butch and Susie would attend all but one JITH. “She got sick and was diagnosed with MDS — a form of blood cancer,” Butch says sadly. “We weren’t able to go just one year because she wasn’t well.”
Susie fought a valiant battle against her disease, but recovering from it just wasn’t in the cards. Butch lost his beloved Susie on Memorial Day, 2018.
After her passing, Butch knew exactly what he needed to do to memorialize her and their shared love of Jamboree In The Hills — he wanted to return to the show that year and scatter some of her ashes at the couple’s campsite in Campground A.
Last year, he and his circle of long-time Jamboree friends did just that. They held a short memorial ceremony for Susie, then sprinkled her ashes in the grass, leaving behind a small physical remembrance of her as well as a big piece of Butch’s heart.
THROUGH THE YEARS
Though Susie is gone, Butch will always have his cherished memories of their love and of Jamboree.
“There used to be a tractor that would pull a hay wagon around between the different campgrounds,” recalls Butch. “People would jump off and on as the tractor drove around.” In later years, there was no longer such a transportation option, and festival-goers were forced to walk between the venue and the campgrounds.
Butch also remembers when there would be a big bonfire in the campgrounds after the show where campers would sit around the crackling flames picking banjos and guitars in an impromptu singalong.
He says he will never forget the rainy years, particularly in the early ’90s when the mud was ankle-deep. On one of those muddy days, he remembers a female band member stepping gingerly off a tour bus wearing an all-white suit and heels. He and his buddies shook their headsin disbelief, and one said, “Looky there, boys — we got ourselves a Jambo virgin!” Needless to say, by the end of the set, that singer’s pristine outfit was covered in muddy handprints.
Butch shares that he also befriended a group from Australia who once stayed in Campground A. He said that Keith Urban, an Aussie himself who was performing that year, heard that his fellow citizens were in the crowd and invited some of them backstage to meet him.
Another favorite memory of Butch’s is meeting his good friend Dan Ritter. Loyal JITH fans may not recognize his given name or even his nickname of “Whiskey Dan,” but they will definitely recognize his traditional Jambo costume — a real bear skin, complete with head and bared teeth. Whiskey Dan was one of many costumed characters that festival attendees looked forward to snapping an annual selfie with each year.
With so many incredible memories, what will Butch miss the most?
He answers without a moment’s hesitation. “The people,” he says. “Most definitely, the people. We were family.”
With Jamboree on “hiatus” this year, Butch and Whiskey Dan plan to travel together to the new Sunny Hill Country Campout, one of the new alternative summer country festivals hoping to eventually rival JITH. Butch hopes this new event is successful, but at the same time, feels that Jamboree In The Hills in Morristown may be back in some new incarnation in the coming years.
“In the old days, it was about the show. Recently, it became all about the money, and that’s sad,” Butch says. The loss of Jamboree In The Hills will definitely be felt by local businesses and residents alike for many years to come. Even if it does return to the same site, the spirit of the event may never be the same, although the spirit of Susie Dennison will always be in attendance.
Dedicated to the Memory of Susan E. Dennison — May 28, 2018
“A life that touches others goes on forever.” — Amit Sodha
• Ellen Brafford McCroskey works in the Lawyer Development Department at Orrick’s GOC in downtown Wheeling, where she has been employed for eight years. A lifelong Wheeling resident, she is a graduate of Wheeling Park High School and Wheeling Jesuit University with a bachelor’s degree in human resources management. Her hobbies include writing, photography, crafting and crocheting. Her pet causes are educating others on the need for solutions to the opioid crisis and the need for equality for all people, particularly her LGBTQ friends and family. Ellen resides in Warwood with her husband Doug, who is the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their extended family includes four adult children and their significant others; a number of biological and “adopted” grandkids; their dads and sisters; numerous in-laws and outlaws; and a clowder of rescued pets.