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.
If you do what you love, you’ll never “work” a day in your life. Sherrie McCutcheon Dunlevy, longtime local broadcast journalist, found that to be true during the 15-plus years that she spent working at Jamboree In The Hills and for Jamboree USA.
“The very best working times ever in my broadcasting career were related to Jamboree,” Dunlevy shares.
THE TIMES OF HER LIFE
Dunlevy was “dragged kicking and screaming” to her first Jamboree In The Hills at the age of 17. At that time, JITH was held at Brush Run Park near St. Clairsville. “I wasn’t even a country music fan — I loved disco!” laughs Dunlevy. But as is the case with many who attended Jambo, she was hooked after just one visit. She continued to be a fan during her college years at Kent State University.
“I wanted to be (Lorianne Crook of) Crook and Chase!” shares Dunlevy with a smile. While that wasn’t exactly in the cards, she did land a job as a news anchor with local television station WTOV-9 where she became a favorite local media personality.
In 1990, WTOV-9 had a new news director who was looking for innovative story ideas. Dunlevy pitched Jamboree In The Hills to him.
“This is where everyone goes every summer!” she recalls telling him. Coincidentally, this was the same year that JITH moved to its new venue in Morristown. The news director agreed to a series of live broadcasts featuring Dunlevy and her fellow news anchor Jim Forbes. And that’s where the fun began.
“It was hard work and a very long weekend, but it was so much fun!” Dunlevy remembers.
That same year, a singer from the Moundsville, West Virginia, area named Lionel Cartwright was enjoying big-league success with a string of Top 10 country hits. He was chosen to be the first act to ever grace the stage at the new JITH venue. Dunlevy had the opportunity to meet and interview Cartwright that year and remembers him as being very cordial.
Dunlevy says that the older, “legacy” act performers, as well as the brand-new, up-and-coming singers, were always the easiest to access for interviews. Sometimes the current hot acts were more difficult to get to. “You always had to get through their ‘people’ first,” she says.
Sometimes the nicest stars were the most difficult to talk to, according to Dunlevy. She theorizes that this was because the singers with the kindest demeanors would probably be the easiest for long-winded fans and interviewers to monopolize. “Barbara Mandrell was always so sweet and genuine,” says Dunlevy. “But she was one that was difficult to access for an interview.”
With agents, managers and public relations folks always standing guard, how was Dunlevy able to talk to so many stars? Her own broadcasting talents helped to pave the way.
Shortly after her first year broadcasting live from the Hills for WTOV-9, she was approached by Larry Anderson, general manager of WWVA radio and Jamboree USA. At the time, Jamboree USA was held every Saturday night at the historic Capitol Music Hall in downtown Wheeling and was the second-longest-running country music show in history, second only to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Anderson asked Dunlevy to emcee the weekly show. She was a young professional who already held down a full-time job, and she was starting to think about marriage and a family of her own.
“I told Larry I would do it every other week,” says Dunlevy. “I told him I would never have time to find a husband if I did it every single Saturday!” Dunlevy took on the emcee role and did indeed find that husband after Jamboree one evening at the Bridge Tavern. She married Rob in 1993, and they have two sons, Trey and the late Brandon.
Her work with Jamboree USA opened some doors for Dunlevy in Nashville. Eventually, she would be given the names of the JITH stars for the coming year and would then travel to Nashville to interview them before the shows. At one point, she was co-hosting four weekly half-hour television specials about Jamboree in the weeks leading up to the music festival. These specials featured the interviews she did with the stars who would be appearing that year.
Dunlevy had the good fortune to meet and interview many top country music stars over the years. Which stars stand out? “Hal Ketchum!” she responds without hesitation. “I once interviewed him in Nashville, and he drove himself up to the interview in an old pickup truck. Great guy. These folks may be stars, but they’re also human.” Dunlevy was saddened by the announcement this spring that Ketchum has retired from touring after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Dunlevy also spent a great deal of time with local-kid-turned-country-music-superstar Brad Paisley. She remembers Paisley as a kid hanging out backstage at Jamboree USA with his dad. He was just hitting his stride as her years with Jamboree were winding down. However, Dunlevy has fond memories of the years leading up to Paisley’s success. She shares that after college, Paisley found work as a songwriter for a major record company. During this period, Paisley once co-hosted one of her WTOV-9 pre-Jamboree specials. Paisley obviously wasn’t a mega-star yet, as Dunlevy reveals that the cue cards the pair used for that special were scrawled on the back of old Christmas wrapping paper!
Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys was a favorite of Dunlevy’s. In one of her first interviews with Allen, their conversation turned to coffee. Dunlevy told him there was some available backstage, but he declined, saying that he’d rather return to his bus for his preferred brand, Jamaican Blue Mountain. “That’s my favorite, too!” exclaimed Dunlevy. Allen was so excited to learn of their shared taste in java that he invited Dunlevy to join him for coffee on his bus. She says that from that time on, he would always invite her for coffee whenever the Oak Ridge Boys appeared at JITH.
“Steve Wariner was always more happy to see you than the other way around,” Dunlevy says. “He’s another really nice guy.”
Charlie Daniels is also one of her all-time favorite interviewees who always made time to talk to her whenever he played at Jamboree.
Dunlevy shares another special memory with Weelunk. After the devastating flood in Shadyside, Ohio, in June 1990, Jamboree USA held a special show to benefit the victims and their families. Dunlevy said that Marty Stuart and Janie Fricke headlined that show and graciously donated their time and talents in support of our local residents.
According to Dunlevy, Stuart is also the proud owner of one of the world’s most sizeable collections of country music memorabilia. She says he collects sequined jackets, guitars and other treasures because he feels strongly that country music history must be kept alive for generations to come.
Fan-favorite Neal McCoy spoke to Dunlevy on many occasions. She notes that even though he hadn’t had a big hit song for quite some time, the Jamboree In The Hills fans couldn’t get enough of him. “Is he going to climb the tower? How high will he go this year? That’s what the crowd always wanted to know,” she recalls. And for many years, McCoy did not disappoint, climbing the rigging to the stage roof and strolling out into the crowd to greet his fans.
Sometimes the headlining acts would arrive early to JITH and hang around backstage, watching the other performers engage with the crowd. Dunlevy remembers that it was surreal to see those country superstars just leaning over the backstage railing, casually enjoying the acts that preceded theirs.
She also recalls seeing Tim McGraw and Faith Hill appear together before they were known as country music’s favorite couple. Dunlevy remembers thinking they seemed pretty cozy and flirtatious with one another backstage. It wasn’t long after that McGraw and Hill announced that they were involved romantically — and Dunlevy was not at all surprised by this revelation.
Members of Rascal Flatts were absolutely elated to appear on the Jamboree In The Hills stage, she remembers. The group hails from Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, and had attended JITH themselves during their pre-stardom years.
Dunlevy shares that the members of the band Little Texas were also always thrilled to be in the Hills — they would change out of their stage costumes after they played and head straight into the crowd to party with the fans.
Some of the countless other country stars that Dunlevy has met or interviewed over the course of her career are Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, Tanya Tucker, Loretta Lynn and Tom T. Hall.
Dunlevy says she always admired Garth Brooks as he rose to fame because even after he hit it big, he continued to honor his existing contracts to perform at county fairs and other small venues.
She also enjoyed seeing performers like Toby Keith, Mark Chesnutt and Joe Diffie rise from unknown status to the pinnacle of gracing the iconic wooden circle of the Grand Ole Opry stage.
Is there anyone Dunlevy did not get to meet? The answer is yes. “I will always regret not meeting or interviewing Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton,” she says wistfully.
BLOOPERS AND BLUNDERS
When asked about bloopers or awkward moments, Dunlevy shares with a laugh that there were a few. One such occasion occurred when she was interviewing the band Pirates of the Caribbean live on WTOV-9. The cord to her microphone ran down her back, out of the camera’s line of sight. As she stood talking among the members of the group, one of them tried to distract her by tugging playfully on the cord at the base of her spine. Undeterred, she maintained her composure and completed the interview with good humor. However, she would later find out that her father noticed the shenanigans while watching from home and was quite angry because he thought his baby girl was being touched inappropriately by a lecherous man. Dunlevy had to assure her father that indeed, that was not the case.
Another awkward moment took place in 2000 when Weird Al Yankovic made an appearance on the Jamboree In The Hills stage. Dunlevy is still unsure why his booking agent would have scheduled the comedic star to perform for a group of rowdy country music fans. As expected, his set was not popular, and he was actually booed heartily by the crowd. Dunlevy was scheduled to interview him immediately after he left the stage.
She was in a bit of a panic, wondering how she would conduct an interview with someone who was so clearly out of his element. But being the consummate professional, she pulled it off and was even rewarded with a hug from Weird Al at the interview’s conclusion. To witness this infamous interview with Weird Al, click here.
Though Dunlevy’s duties at Jamboree in the Hills were fun, they were still work. She was required to maintain her professional demeanor and be camera-ready at a moment’s notice, which meant that Dunlevy never had the chance to enjoy the Morristown party atmosphere as much as other folks.
“My personal Jamboree was always on Sunday night after the show,” she reveals. She says that her WTOV-9 team and many of the Jamboree staff would head to the Bridge Tavern after the closing act to enjoy themselves and let down their hair a bit. “(Bridge Tavern owner) George Dormas was a great host; the place was always packed, and people were dancing on the tables. A lot of the Canadian JITH fans would stay at the hotel across the street, and they would come over, too. Such a great time!”
Dunlevy, like many fans, was sorry to learn that Jamboree In The Hills would not be held this year. “But everything has to evolve,” she says matter-of-factly.
Dunlevy’s career has also evolved since her years in broadcasting. These days, she is a motivational speaker and book author. Her acclaimed book How Can I Help? is available online, and she is hard at work on her second book. Dunlevy is also the owner of an anti-aging business.
She will always treasure her days in the Hills and on the Jamboree USA stage. Dunlevy smiles at the memories. “Yes, it was work, but the most fun work ever. It beat broadcasting the news any day. At Jamboree, I didn’t feel like I worked a day in my life.”
• 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.