Jamboree in the Hills by Timothy O'Malley
Milk Made generally tries to expose as many subcultures as we can find, but one big chunk of America often slips between the cracks. Yes, I’m referring to the group popularly known as hillbilly rednecks.
It’s not hard to understand why we don’t spend most of our time reporting about backwoodsy yokels. If we covered rednecks in all their gunslingin’, truck drivin’ glory on a regular basis, you probably wouldn’t be reading this to begin with. Beyond that, we’d probably be inundated with a constant flood of twangy negative feedback from hicks who think us city folk couldn’t tell a bull’s horns from it’s corn hole.
Now I’m no Jeff Foxworthy, but I’m pretty sure I could make that distinction.
Nonetheless, country music is a genre I only have a vague appreciation for. It’s a soundtrack for a culture I know almost exclusively through stereotypes. So when I first heard about about photographer Timothy O’Malley’s new project documenting Jamboree in the Hills, I couldn’t say anything but, “What the hell is Jamboree?”
After doing a little research, I now know that Jamboree in the Hills is an annual country music festival held in rural Ohio that’s been going since 1977. It’s a big deal in the country scene. Thousands of people from all over the country wait for the event each year, eager to camp out in a field, party, and listen to some of the biggest names in country music. I figured it was probably a good ole’ time for anyone who liked drinkin’ Coors and ridin’ horses, but since I’d never set foot in a stable and only drank Coors out of necessity, I had no idea what the actual atmosphere of the event was like. Luckily O’Malley was more than willing to take the time out of his schedule to talk to us about his photos and to explain what it’s like to attend Jamboree.
Milk Made: How did you get involved with Jamboree?
Timothy O’Malley: My family has been going for a while now. My aunts and uncles were going when it was still pretty brand new, and this year was the 35th year of Jamboree.
MM: Was this the first time you attended the festival?
TO: This year was my third year. The first year that I went, it was total culture shock. Growing up, I went to school in nearby West Virginia for three years, so I kind of knew what the whole area and environment was about, but going to this thing is just like culture shock. It really brings out the raw environment in the area, the people in the area, and all the people that show up from wherever in the U.S.
MM: I heard it isn’t really advertised, it’s more of a viva voce, word of mouth kind of thing…
TO: Jamboree in the Hills used to advertise around the East Coast, but now it’s become more of a homie event, where friends just tell friends. That’s how people find out about it; other than word of mouth, you wouldn’t know it was there. The thing is, it’s one of the oldest festivals in the country. I mean, it started two years after Woodstock. But they’re not there to make money. It’s more about having a good time and preserving what it is. It’s kind of run by the people for the people, and that’s what makes it different.
MM: How is Jamboree compared to other festivals?
TO: It’s super different. I’ve been to Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo, some smaller ones like Governor’s Ball in New York City, but none of them are like Jamboree. I feel that with the other festivals, the music acts and environment are catered to what’s big in the music industry during that time, whereas this thing really sticks to its roots. They wanted to create a modern country music event, and to this day they’re bringing a country feel to it. It’s less corporate than any of the other ones.
MM: What were the people like? What was the feeling and atmosphere of the crowd?
TO: It’s funny, some of my pictures capture confederate flags and crazy redneck flags and signs of that sort, but it’s not all about that. The atmosphere is super happy-go-lucky, and everyone watches each other’s back. You have fireworks at night, and people are dancing, singing and running around, just enjoying it. You have a younger audience that likes to party, dress up and have fun, and then you have your older generation who are there strictly for the music. Then there’s a mix of everyone in between.
Of course, you also have the people who bring their flags, people who are rooted in the deep South. They don’t really promote racism but just having the flag there, you know… it’s a different crowd. The Confederate flag is just something you see there. It’s interesting because living in the city, I never really see it. I hate that it might stand out to some people as representing everyone at the festival, but it’s just something that’s there. It has nothing to do with what Jamboree is all about, which is simply having a good time with country music around you.
MM: Did you stay in the campgrounds?
TO: This year I camped out. Every year my cousin rents a campsite big enough that you could probably fit 25 different vehicles on the spot if you really wanted to. I brought my girlfriend who’s from Switzerland—she probably experienced more of a culture shock than I did. We rented a 2013 Mustang convertible, a super American car, and did a road trip from New York City to Ohio. It was funny to see someone who has never seen anything like Jamboree before camp out and watch people get dirty and grimy the whole time.
MM: What events happen outside of music?
TO: You have different things going on at different camps so walking around is an event in itself. There are also other events that only certain diehard Jamboree people go to, like the Redneck Run.
MM: The Redneck Run?
TO: It’s huge. It starts at around five in the morning. The wives and the girlfriends save a space in front of the line while all their husbands and boyfriends gather together. At around six AM, all the men suddenly rush like crazy to secure a plot of land in front of the concert stage for the whole day and night. That was really cool. I took a bunch of video of people running across with a field with tarps and blankets. It was like a massive stampede, I’ve never seen anything like it before. These diehards—everyone’s probably super hung over, not feeling so hot, but they do it just to secure the best spot possible.
That’s what’s cool about it. With other bigger music festivals like Coachella, you can buy a VIP ticket and get special access to special areas, and blah blah blah. Jamboree gives everybody the same ticket.
MM: Do you think there’s a special feeling of comradery between the concertgoers?
TO: Totally. Every now and again at the other festivals I’ve been to, you run into problems, like people being assholes or starting fights. At this place, everyone’s always smiling. It kind of bummed me out because people are smiling in every picture I have. I kind of wanted these harder, rawer images like the ones I’ve been shooting more recently, but it was impossible. Everybody was too happy. You can just feel it, it’s good energy the whole time.
MM: Tell me about the photos of the girls dancing in the tent.
TO: There’s a local strip club not too far away from the festival called Jill’s in the Hills. They sponsor a massive tent every year where they put up this stage and encourage women from Jamboree to get up and dance. I have video of girls taking off their tops and just going crazy. It’s funny man, all night, like 3 AM or even later, you have this giant party under this tent and everybody’s out of their minds and having fun until the Redneck Run the next morning.
MM: Gotta love those southern belles. Just for future reference, what was security like?
TO: They’re pretty tight about security. They have different signs that let you know the requirements to get into the festival, like only one cooler, only so many Jell-o shots. It’s funny because you don’t have that at other places. There isn’t a sign at Coachella that says you can only have this many Jell-o shots. I mean, you can’t even bring a whole cooler in, you have to buy everything in the venue. It’s just different corporations trying to make money any way they can.
But yeah, they police it well. They have scouters walking around that will tell you to stop doing something they think is sketchy, but they also have local cops, state cops—they’re all watching over it. They’re scared that there could be one isolated event that would be so bad that it would destroy this thing that people enjoy every year, so they make sure to have a measure of authority around just to keep people from doing absolutely anything they want.
MM: Do you think you’ll go next year too?
TO: Yeah, I think I will. I could probably make a book right now from all the photos I took, but I’d love to document it over the years. It’s super special, I don’t think many people cover it. Every time I take someone new there they’re just totally shocked.
MM: You’ve mentioned culture shock a couple times now. What is the most shocking thing about being there?
TO: That’s a great question. Even though I grew up around that area, I spent most of my time on the East Coast. Having a weekend where you experience a whole other group of people that just listen to country music, diehards of this certain life you don’t see that much on the coast… even though it’s right there, it’s like a hidden society. Unless you do things like this, you wouldn’t know what people who really listen to this music are like. I used to hate country, but now I love it, and I’ve grown to love it through Jamboree.