A small village in southern Ohio may seem like an unlikely country music hot spot, but Bainbridge, population 3,000, boasts a tradition rivaled only by the country music capital of the world.
Bainbridge is home to the Paint Valley Jamboree, the oldest continuous country music show in Ohio — and second nationally only to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The Paint Valley Jamboree began in 1967, and in fact it benefited from its seemingly remote location. “Artists from Nashville could stop here and play a show on their way to the East Coast,” says Tim Koehl, owner of the Paxton Theatre, home of the jamboree. “It was a great halfway point.”
For its entire lifespan, the Paint Valley Jamboree has been held in the cozy, yet stately — and acoustically friendly — confines of the Paxton, a century-old building anchoring a corner of downtown Bainbridge. It has attracted such country luminaries as Waylon Jennings, Dottie West, Merle Haggard, Connie Smith, Johnny Paycheck, Minnie Pearl, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Porter Wagoner.
Today, the jamboree continues to draw from a reservoir of talent to play alongside its house band, the Original Jam Band.
Still, as musical tastes change, Koehl and his team have a tricky balancing act: trying to preserve the history, traditions, and nostalgia of the jamboree, while also trying to bring in a younger audience.
“People hear the word ‘jamboree’ and some just tune out,” says Wade Hamilton, who books musicians and runs the theater’s sound board. So, this year the jamboree has unveiled a new logo and look that incorporates classic rock into country vibe. The “Fifty 50” logo alludes to both the music mix and the proximity to U.S. Route 50, which joins the East and West coasts.
For Hamilton, the beauty of the jamboree is in the exchange of stories and traditions and the passing of the torch between generations of country music.
“My favorite part is the camaraderie between the performers,” he says. “There’s so much musical history at the Paxton that folks are just always excited to play there. Musicians spend time before and after the show swapping stories and tunes backstage. It’s fun to be a part of that.”
He says that the long history of the jamboree brings a sense of pride to folks in the Paint Valley as well. “People love to bring family and friends to the theater when they’re in town visiting and always ask for a tour and a story or two,” he says.
Many long careers in country music began on the stage of the Paxton, and that history is enshrined on a “Wall of Fame” backstage full of framed and autographed photos. There’s a story with each photo, and Koehl knows them all. Koehl, 70, is the savior of the Paxton Theatre, purchasing the property in 2013 from previous owners. Over the years, the theater has been in various stages of glory and disrepair, depending on the era. Koehl and his wife, Deb, created the nonprofit Paxton Theatre Foundation for the theater’s operations and upkeep.
The Paxton now does more than just the jamboree. For instance, the jamboree takes a break each July, when the theater is turned over to local youth who stage a summer theater production, often a Disney play.
“Our summer programs gets 40 to 50 children who would never be able to get on a stage otherwise, a place to perform,” Koehl says. “That’s one of the things I am most proud of.”
COVID was rough on the jamboree, forcing a pause in the schedule in 2020. In the end, though, it may have helped more than hurt, because the theater team was able to invest some time and money into improvements. Now they just need to get people to return — and they’re building a performance schedule that’s on par with the best of Nashville, so that shouldn’t be difficult.
“It will be a feel-good mix of music, and that is the goal,” Hamilton says.
One hundred and 10 years after the Paxton Theatre opened as a township hall, and over 50 years after the first Paint Valley Jamboree, Hamilton marvels at the building’s longevity and functionality. The sound, which pours off the stage in crisp, clear notes, is what keeps acts coming back.
“The Paxton was built as a township hall before they had sound systems, so they designed it so acoustics would travel, everyone would be able to hear what was on stage. It was designed for productions,” Hamilton says.
“Every group that we ever have in there, the first thing they comment on is how the sound is incredible,” Hamilton says. “We are lucky that someone had the forethought 110 years ago to think about the sound.”
Paint Valley Jamboree at the Paxton Theatre, 133 E. Main St., Bainbridge, goes on the second Saturday of each month through the season. General admission tickets are $12, and streaming tickets are available for $8. Visit www.paxtontheatre.org.