Forty-three – the number of years I have played music at the Lincoln Jamboree, doesn’t really seem that long until I look at some things going on when I started playing piano there as a teenager.
Lyndon Johnson was president. I had hardly heard of Vietnam, where I would find myself as a U.S. Air Force sergeant only two years later. If anyone had mentioned personal computer, cell phone, touchtone phone, personal digital assistant, microwave oven, Google or Twitter, I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what they were talking about unless they had watched too many episodes of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone.
The Lincoln Jamboree, however, was well-established when I started full time as a piano player and gospel music singer. Joel Ray Sprowls, the creator, owner and producer of the Jamboree, has often told audiences that, when he started the country music showplace in 1954, naysayers wondered how a “10-year-old boy” could ever get a show like that to last.
It has lasted, and I’m proud to say that, so far, I have, too, still playing the piano (which now is really a digital keyboard set inside the frame of an old upright piano) and still singing gospel music.
How and why I’ve lasted over four decades goes back to how we musicians describe what we do – play. When we start the opening theme song each week, the work is over and the play begins. We’ve been fortunate at the Jamboree to have what I consider top-class amateur musicians who could easily have gone professional. And, we’ve usually been able to hold several members of the five-piece band together for years.
I must give credit to Sprowls, who has been able to keep an entertainment business going for over 54 years in a rural setting where most of our audiences have come from Louisville, Indiana and counties surrounding LaRue. That’s no small feat, especially considering it’s a stage show in a dry county with several competing music shows operating.
Credit also goes to the caliber of musicians and singers, too. I refuse to try to name them all, for fear of omission, but the current house band – Ron Browning, steel, Tommy Davenport, lead guitar, Charles “Anchor Man” Durham, drums, Mike Ash, bass guitar, along with featured singer Heidi Baldwin and banjo picker extraordinaire Jarrad Mattingly – are as talented as any group we’ve had in the 43 years I’ve been there.
It’s fun playing with guys who’ll cover my mistakes, be able to play and harmonize on songs they have heard only once (or not at all), and who are fun to be around, both on and off the stage.
Variety has been another ingredient why audiences have enjoyed the show. Over the years, we’ve accompanied guests playing horns, saxophones, lap guitars, dobros, dulcimers, lutes, kazoos, combs, even a whistle made out of a fly sprayer complete with a reservoir and sliding handle. We’ve watched cloggers, jitterbuggers, Macarena dancers, hula-hoopers, and have seen Sprowls show off on stage pet squirrels, pigs, coons, dogs and even skunks.
We’ve seen magicians, comedians, impressionists, ventriloquists, and we have even performed a wedding onstage with a Saturday night audience applauding as the newly married couple walked off arm-in-arm.
All this, however, would have been impossible without the understanding of the one person to whom I owe the most for my 43 years at the Jamboree, my wife Sherry, who has given up more than 2,000 weekends so that her husband could go out and play with the boys.