Early birds ready for Jamboree in the Hills

BELMONT – Jamboree in the Hills isn’t just about the music. According to a number of early campers surveyed on Monday, it’s also about developing a sense of community, meeting new friends and visiting old ones, finding creative ways to stay cool and just having a good time.

As of 3:30 p.m. on Monday, there were approximately 800 campers set up at the Jamboree campgrounds, according to a staff estimate.

“We’re just getting started,” said campground staffer Andrea Pack. “It got a little hairy with the rain this morning, but for the most part everything’s gone smoothly.”

Campers have driven from as far as Ontario, Canada and as near as St. Clairsville to set up shop in preparation for the Superbowl of Country Music.

Bill Yoho, a Wetzel County resident, said he has been coming to Jamboree for 12 to 13 years.

“I just like to be here,” he offered. “The entertainment’s a bonus.”

Yoho brought his friend, first-timer Carl Tedrow. The two are staying cool for the week with an in-tent air conditioner.

Meeting up with old friends is much of the point for some groups at Jamboree. The self-proclaimed Red Hat Gang is holding its “reunion tour” on site, with hats and a banner to proclaim it such. One member of the group has been to Jamboree 30 times, while another is only on her fourth year. The Red Hat Gang was the first group of campers to enter the campground; they received a police escort to their spots last week. They say they do much of their partying before the actual music starts.

Dale Rahr, a Jamestown, NY native, echoed that sentiment. He, along with three other traveling companions, was waiting in a line of campers before the entrance to the campground on Monday afternoon.

“You come for the party, and stay for the music,” he offered.

Cindy Oakes, also from NY, said her group has been planning all year for Jamboree. Oakes is looking forward to seeing Darius Rucker perform. She also expressed hope that the Zac Brown Band would return to the festival next year.

A group of campers from mixed locations, including Syracuse, NY, Maryland and Ontario, Canada was seen setting up a large blow-up swimming pool on Monday. They said they arrived on Sunday, and couldn’t remember exactly when they started coming to Jamboree.

“Here it’s just all about having fun,” said Belinda Rotundo. “You get used to seeing the same people. It’s nice.”

“We make new friends and see old friends every year,” said Dana Price, who traveled from Akron. Price and her group of fellow campers said they are most looking forward to seeing “the old-school guy,” Marty Stuart, perform.

Other campers from Akron were seen camping with old friends from New Jersey. The Jambo enthusiasts say they met in 1997, and have camped next to each other ever since. The New Jerseyans arrived in a 1952 bus, a bit of an oddity amongst the modern campers and tents. New Jersey native Sue Eppolite said she and her friends, Jane Graves and Lynn Lofland, are most looking forward to seeing Neal McCoy perform. McCoy will be playing an acoustic set on Sunday.

“It’s just being drunk and silly and having fun,” Eppolite said of the event. “Every year, I think I can’t see anything new, and then something ridiculous happens.”

Old favorites may be popular, but newer artists have fans at Jambo as well.

Alyssa Paddison, an Ontario, Canada native, said she is anticipating Brantley Gilbert’s performance. Paddison’s mother, Linda, said she attends many country festivals throughout the year. However, Jamboree is her “ultimate favorite,” despite the long trip. The Paddisons were accompanied by Wheeling native Nuncia Filippelli, who said she loves the atmosphere. All three ladies plan to stay cool with their blow-up swimming pool, bikinis-only attire and lots of water.

Some early campers discussed ways that Jamboree has changed in the many years since the inaugural festival. Greg Slakovick, John Keller and Mandy Keller agreed that the age group has changed to include more youthful faces. Slakovick, a West Virginia native, also said that Jamboree is not themed the way it used to be.

“I’d like to see more big-name artists,” he added. The Kellers and Slakovick are looking forward to seeing Tim McGraw, Little Big Town and David Nail perform.

Belinda Rotundo, along with two others from her camping group, also noted that there are more young people in the crowd. She and her friends, Denise Teeter and Cindy Brooks, even remember a time when there was a “M.A.S.H” tent on the campgrounds, where people would attend a party in costume as characters from the long-running T.V. show.

They also remember some campers bringing living room furniture, but that practice has mostly been abandoned due to less space. However, the ladies are still enjoying Jamboree and looking forward to seeing festival favorite Neal McCoy.

The general consensus on the best way to stay cool throughout the week seemed to be blow-up swimming pools and cold beverages. Early bird campers are kicking back and relaxing before the real party starts on Thursday afternoon, with the band A Thousand Horses.

“I love it, love it” said Nuncia Filippelli.

She’s certainly not alone.

Warner may be reached at mwarner@timesleaderonline.com.