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Tennessee Jamboree, Blue Valley Boys, early 1960s

The Tennessee Jamboree: Local Radio, the Barn Dance, and Cultural Life in Appalachian East Tennessee
Bradley Hanson, Brown University

"The Tennessee Jamboree: Local Radio, the Barn Dance, and Cultural Life in Appalachian East Tennessee" was selected for the 2008 Southern Spaces series "Space, Place, and Appalachia," a collection of innovative, interdisciplinary publications exploring Appalachian geographies through multimedia presentations. Other published pieces in this series include Earl Dotter, Coalfield Generations: Health, Mining, and the Environment and Scott Matthews, John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival.

Part of a wave of local, post-WWII "barn dance"-style, country music shows, the Tennessee Jamboree radio program was modeled on earlier, nationally popular programs like Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and Chicago's National Barn Dance. The Tennessee Jamboree reimagined and reshaped the genre into a platform for local cultural expression. Drawing upon newly recovered broadcasts, interviews with Jamboree participants, and images from the Tennessee State Archive and Library, this essay resituates the Tennessee Jamboree within several historical and cultural contexts that help to illuminate the expressive life of Lafollette, Tennessee, the broad sweep of regional broadcasting, and the incomplete chronicle of the barn dance genre.
Tennessee Jamboree poster, early 1960s

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. . . Hello everybody and welcome friends to your Tennessee Jamboree here on another Saturday evening. I'll tell you what, it's good to have you tuned our way. Wherever you might be, hope you enjoy the next little bit now. We've got all the boys and girls here present and accounted for. So why don't you kindly turn your dial up a little bit and stay around with us for the next hour, cause we’ve got Monroe, Big Red, Ol' Sidro L.C., and the trio and all here on the Tennessee Jamboree. So we hope you'll stay around with us . . .
Elmer Longmire (late 1960s)

Listen to a clip from the Tennessee Jamboree: Introduction and "John Hardy." Elmer Longmire and the Blue Valley Boys, late 1960s (1:24 min).
The collection of L.C. Edwards and the Tennessee State Library and Archives
RealMedia | Windows Media | QuickTime

The Tennessee Jamboree, a country music radio variety show, aired between 1953 and 1978 on AM station WLAF in LaFollette, Tennessee. Across twenty-five years, the Blue Valley Boys and Girls, the show's featured performers, picked, sang, and entertained each Saturday night for listeners in the Campbell Country broadcast area. Recognizable as a derivative of the nationally popular radio "barn dance" genre, the Tennessee Jamboree reshaped the established formula into a locally-based format of cultural expression. During the summers of 2007 and 2008, while part of a fieldwork and research team sponsored by the Cumberland Trail State Scenic Trail in East Tennessee, I helped locate tapes containing several complete, and some fragmented, original broadcasts. These rare recordings, spanning 1965 to 1977, reveal a thriving radio program, one steeped in the nationally broadcast country music variety show tradition, yet more considerably marked by the particular circumstances and preferences of Appalachian East Tennessee and, even more so, of LaFollette.

Tennessee Jamboree, Blue Valley Boys, mid-1960s
Tennessee Jamboree, Blue Valley Boys, mid-1960s.

Starting in the mid-1920s, the barn dance genre provided many U.S. listeners an appealing entertainment format through which to negotiate rapidly changing social and cultural circumstances. Amid revolutionizing "modern" technologies, this "down-home" representation, marked by traditional values and "old time" country music, proved popular with rural, urban, and newly urban audiences. The genre thrived as powerful radio stations served swelling regional and national audiences. The airwaves that worked effectively to reduce distance, reconfigure place, and re-imagine communities often carried the rustic and comforting sounds of a barn dance. After World War II, as hundreds of new radio stations began to broadcast from small towns, a new wave of barn dance programs emerged, fashioned after national models like the National Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry. These postwar shows returned the genre to local communities, providing an alternative to the mass-mediated, distant worlds aurally constituted on popular network broadcasts. Just as so many of the long-established programs had aided the creation of regional and national audiences so did these smaller barn dance programs of the 1950s and 60s project and construct a sense of local identification.

For historians, the negotiation by the "listener" of complex national, regional, and local identifications has been a central, contested issue in radio scholarship. Susan Douglas describes the condition:
[Radio's] technologically produced aurality allowed listeners to reformulate their identities as individuals and as members of a nation by listening in to signs of unity and signs of difference. By the late 1920s "chain broadcasting" was centralizing radio programming in New York and standardizing the broadcast day. . . . Meanwhile, independent stations featured locally produced programs with local talent. Listeners could tune into either or both, and tie in, imaginatively, with shows that sought to capture and represent a "national" culture or those that sought to defend regional and local cultural authority.1
Douglas suggests that, though now mostly lost to us, the contents and personalities of local radio were esteemed and sought-after. "Despite the familiar narrative that radio fans came to favor the networks because their program quality was superior," she writes, "the fragmentary evidence indicates that many listeners preferred their local and independent station, and loved announcers, singers, storytellers, and readers of news whose names and fame have not survived radio's highly ephemeral record."2

Due to the "ephemeral record" of local broadcasting, the scholarly attention given to the barn dance genre has tended to focus on a few of the larger nationally- and regionally-popular programs. These Tennessee Jamboree tapes offer a new glimpse into the overlooked, underrepresented, and frequently unobservable relationship between country music, small town radio, and cultural life. The tapes reveal that, even while reflecting the broader influences of the barn dance genre, small town programs offered listeners a way to frame their dispositions, animate their local spaces, and satisfy their tastes. As artifacts shaped by overlapping historical and geographical contexts, the tapes help us understand and interpret how a small town barn dance broadcast sought the polish of revered national programs while nurturing a more ad hoc small town spirit, how it aimed for variety and showmanship while operating on a do-it-yourself-scale, how it achieved broadcast professionalism while mainly employing industrious amateurs. Through the expressive practices of local musicians and entertainers, LaFollette area listeners found on their airwaves a particular constitution of their cultural life.

Blue Valley Boys newspaper advertisement, late 1960s
Blue Valley Boys newspaper advertisement, LaFollette, Tennessee, late 1960s.

In this essay I place the Tennessee Jamboree within several contexts, organized toward a progressive narrowing of focus. I will start with a discussion of the critical role of radio in rural life in the United States, before going on to outline the long-running country music radio (and later television) barn dance tradition, as it expanded nationally and as it developed within East Tennessee. These sections feature audio and video clips from several programs, included to create a fuller, richer, and more specific introduction to this resilient genre. Using documentary evidence and recent fieldwork, I will also explore relevant aspects of the history of LaFollette, of AM station WLAF, and the Tennessee Jamboree radio program. These traces will intersect as I conclude with a close description and the full audio of one representative Tennessee Jamboree broadcast. While marked by and situated within national and regional settings, the Tennessee Jamboree inhabited a local broadcast space and constructed over the airwaves an idealized aural representation of a southern Appalachian small town's culture.

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Published: 20 November 2008

© 2008 Bradley Hanson and Southern Spaces