- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

WHEELING, W.Va. — On a clear evening, an AM radio signal carries the music of Jamboree USA as far as Australia and Japan, but it's the little things about one of the nation's oldest live radio shows that keep devoted country-music fans listening 69 years after its first broadcast.

It's the small stage in the small but lavishly decorated hall, where every seat in the house is good. It's the little-known names who sometimes make it big: Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn. It's the value of an inexpensive ticket to a good show on a Saturday night.

"To me, this is way better than going to a civic center or someplace like that," says longtime listener Sherri Reischman. "There, it's really hard to see and hear. Here, you can see everything that goes on."

On a recent evening, Miss Reischman has driven 30 miles from Barnesville, Ohio, to see Neal McCoy twist his hips during "The Shake" and rap to "The Beverly Hillbillies" theme song.

Fans flock by the busload to the historic downtown Capitol Music Hall: senior citizens from Pittsburgh; a shuffleboard club from Hagerstown, Md.; and families from Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.

The hall seats 2,500 and allows moments of intimacy that would be unlikely in a 15,000-seat arena, such as when Mr. McCoy, reading a note passed through the crowd, singles out a woman celebrating the loss of 150 pounds.

Or when the singer, his fiddler and a little boy from the audience launch into a hilariously inept rendition of "The Chicken Dance," complete with a fuzzy toy chick waddling across the stage behind them.

"You won't see no chicken dance at a Garth Brooks concert or an Alan Jackson concert," Mr. McCoy tells the crowd.

Only the Grand Ole Opry, which started its radio show in 1925, has been around longer than Jamboree USA, which radio station WWVA-AM launched in 1933.

The frequency, 1170, reaches 18 states and six Canadian provinces, regularly drawing listeners from Florida to Nova Scotia. When the atmosphere is right, the signal stretches around the world.

Mr. McCoy long ago lost count of his appearances on the show, but he knows the first was with Charley Pride.

"I don't remember what year it was," Mr. McCoy says. "I just thought, ' it would be great to come here and make it on my own some day.'"

There are times when no-name entertainers become big names: Singer Brad Paisley, who grew up in nearby Glen Dale, started playing the Jamboree when he was 12. Even Garth Brooks was relatively unknown when he appeared in 1990.

"I thought he'd be a one-hit wonder," marketing director Terri Phillips says. "The only song anyone knew then was 'Friends in Low Places.'"

The show, usually about two hours and always on Saturday nights, started out in a WWVA studio, but listeners soon demanded to see it in person.

It moved to the Capitol Theatre on April 1, 1933, when more than 3,200 people paid a quarter to see the first midnight show. Another 1,000 were turned away.

Live performances were canceled during World War II, but the show continued to be broadcast every Saturday at 7 p.m. from the studio. It was canceled only once, when the Ohio River flooded Wheeling.

In its early years, the show changed homes several times, but it moved back to the Capitol Theatre, renamed the Capitol Music Hall, for good in 1969.

Tickets range from $12.95 to $26.95, depending on the artist. Roy Clark, Loretta Lynn and others continue to keep their prices low.

"I just think it's because they're country people, and they know that these are working-class people who would not otherwise get to see a show," Miss Phillips says.

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