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Country music and humor ingredients in Jamboree’s success

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Saturday night tradition has staged more than 2,860 shows

By Ben Sheroan

After the Lincoln Jamboree’s 55th anniversary show Saturday, Joel Ray Sprowls parked himself in a tall cloth chair backstage and put his feet on a worn leather footstool.

He then engaged in a bit of historic math: 55 years times 52 weeks equals 2,860 Saturday night performances of his music review that began in1954 in a rented theater on Lincoln Square. That total doesn’t include an occasional 53rd Saturday resulting from a well-timed leap year, the travel shows and county fairs or the 26 weekly television done on long ago Thursday nights in Bowling Green.

When it all began in 1954, he was a young radio disc jockey with a promoter’s heart who managed to piece together a house band. Many acts have passed through the stage including the Oak Ridge Boys, Odell Martin, Patty Loveless and bluegrass legends Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The common thread through it all, Joel Ray’s introductions sprinkled in with occasional quips and jokes.

A building fire that destroyed the theater did not interrupt the streak of Saturday night performances. They opened the next weekend under a giant tent while a new theater was constructed. He’s occasionally missed a show because of personal tragedies such as an airplane crash and a stroke. But even those events become fodder for his humor.

After telling Saturday’s audience about doctors’ dire prognosis following a 1984 plane crash, Sprowls describes reconstructive work necessary to restore his body, including skin grafts for his face.

“I still don’t know where they got the graft,” he said. “But when I get tired my face wants to sit down.”

The theater off Lincoln Farm Road was nearly packed for the anniversary show, including a couple from Carrollton celebrating an anniversary of their own. J.D. and Juanita Smith visited the Lincoln Jamboree for their 50th wedding anniversary last year and decided to come back this year.

“It’s worth what you pay for it and it’s good entertainment,” Smith said from the front row seat he occupied after enjoying down-home eats in Joel Ray’s Restaurant out front before the show.

During the show, Sprowls paused to introduce the Smiths and other special guests in the audience. When he mentioned a couple marking their 60th anniversary and no one stood up, Sprowls defused the awkward moment with a timely quip.

“They’re probably here,” he said. “They just haven’t stood up yet.”

Sprowls also introduced local businessman Bobby Wright of Wright’s 210 Auto, who was part of his original crew. When the show started in 1954, Wright spent Saturday nights making popcorn.

Another fixture from the earliest days is Charles Durham of Buffalo, who has played drums in the Lincoln Jamboree band since joining the Sprowls three months after the jamboree’s debut.

Saturday’s program featured a collection of guests plus the show’s regular cast. Sprowls also offered a free patio show out front of the restaurant before the performance and had three $55 giveaways commemorating the anniversary.

After the three-hour anniversary performance, Sprowls sat backstage discussing talent show rules with a guest and holding an impromptu audition.

He’s looking forward to the next major milestone: the 3,000th Saturday night show, which based on his math, should arrive in early 2012.