Dick Stacey realized he’d caught lightning in a bottle a few years after he began sponsoring the “Country Jamboree,” the amateur country music showcase that aired live Saturday nights on Bangor TV station WVII throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
He and longtime “Jamboree” host Charlie Tenan had traveled to Nova Scotia in 1976 to participate in a country music showcase, on the invitation of a local radio station. WVII’s signal had recently become available in the Maritimes, and the “Jamboree” had become a Canadian hit. On a lark, the pair drove the seven hours to Dartmouth, just outside Halifax, to see what the fuss was about.
To their shock and delight, they were given the star treatment. There was a sold-out crowd packed into the 2,000-seat auditorium, there to listen to the music and see the man whose catchphrase (“See these hands? They pump gas! And they STINK!”) had quickly become a household phrase.
“I didn’t plan on any of this happening, I really didn’t,” said Stacey. “But I went along for the ride.”
For those who didn’t grow up with “Stacey’s Country Jamboree,” it can seem a little bizarre that a low-budget country music show produced in Bangor, Maine, would end up such a hit. It featured mostly unknown singers, some of whom couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
But for a generation of country music lovers and amused late-night TV-watchers, the “Jamboree” was a cult favorite, and one of the most “Maine” things to ever hit airwaves.
Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Stacey was born in 1936 in Brewer, the son of Ethel and William Stacey. He had two older brothers and a sister. Around the time World War II broke out, the family moved to Portland, where Stacey’s father worked in a shipyard. The family broke up not long after that, and Stacey was sent back to the Bangor area at the age of 5, where he bounced around, staying with different families until eventually winding up in the 1941 equivalent of a group home in Monroe.
“I milked cows there and carried water and sap up and worked on the farm until third grade, when my mother got me back and we moved to Bangor,” Stacey said.
Growing up, Stacey was an avid basketball player, playing with former Maine Sen. Bill Cohen and longtime Bangor-area basketball coach Bob Cimbollek. After graduating from Bangor High School in 1955, he tried — and failed — at a number of odd jobs, including shoveling snow at the then-new Joshua Chamberlain Bridge, driving a dump truck at the construction site for the Bangor Auditorium, and cutting meat at C.H. Rice in Bangor.
“I got fired from the bridge on the first day because they said I spent too much time at the water fountain. I got fired from driving truck because they said I was going to ruin the clutch,” Stacey said. “And I got fired from Rice’s because I failed the meat-cutting test. I figured I’d better get an education.”
Stacey enrolled at Husson College in 1956, where he stayed for five semesters before joining the Air National Guard. In 1960 he got a job as a business manager at the tire center at Bangor-based trucking line Cole’s Express. That job, unlike the previous ones, was a good fit, and Stacey worked for the Cole family for nearly a decade.
In 1969, he leased a service station in Brewer from Chesley Cole and named it Stacey’s Fuel Mart, and he later opened fuel marts in Ellsworth and Harrington. By 1970, the name Dick Stacey was starting to be well-known around eastern Maine.
Honky tonk heroes
Stacey advertised with WVII-7, the ABC affiliate in Bangor, for years before a salesperson from the station asked him if he’d sponsor the “Country Jamboree,” a weekly live broadcast that was equal parts talent show, gong show, and country and bluegrass showcase.
The “Jamboree” wasn’t the first country show to be broadcast in eastern Maine. In the 1950s and ’60s, there was a show called the “RFD Dinnerbell,” hosted by Yodelin’ Slim Clark, a Maine country legend. There was also the “Curly O’Brien Show,” also broadcast on WVII in the ’50s and ’60s. The “Jamboree,’ which began airing on WVII in 1963, was originally sponsored by Whitten’s Frankenstein Store in Milbridge, and was hosted by musician Tenan.
The “Jamboree” format was relaxed and unrehearsed. Anyone with a modicum of musical talent could come to the studio and perform, so long as they were “sincere and sober,” as Stacey put it. Tenan, who died in 2012, kept the show running smoothly, segueing between “real singers” and less obviously talented folks who wished to warble a few bars on TV.
WVII began looking for a new sponsor in 1973. As Stacey recalls, when the salesperson approached him, he half-jokingly said he’d sponsor the whole thing.
“I thought, ‘What the hell, why not?’ They’ll probably forget I said I’d do it anyway,” Stacey said. “I always liked country music anyway.”
When he was given the contract the following week, he was a little surprised the station had taken him seriously. He signed up anyway, for a 13-week trial run.
From 13 weeks to 10 years
Initially, the show was broadcast on Saturday nights, out of a tiny studio on Farm Road in Bangor. As its popularity grew, people would show up at the studio not only to perform, but also to sit in on a taping — just to see what the heck was on the crazy, kooky country show that week.
Watchers soon got to know regulars including Perley Curtis, a Maine native who went on to play steel guitar for Loretta Lynn; Don and Duane Nickerson, brothers who for years have fronted the popular Maine band Country Mist; and singer Wanda Harris, who went on to greater success as a country artist in Florida.
One of the youngest performers on the show was guitarist Jeff Simon, a Milford resident and still a regular performer in Maine with his band Mainely Country. He started performing on the show at the tender age of 11, alongside his sister, singer Jolene, even before Stacey took over the show. Simon later toured Maine and the Maritimes with various “Jamboree” performers.
“I think the thing about the Jamboree was that you’d just meet all different sorts of people, from all walks of life,” Simon said. “I got to play a lot of music with a lot of different people, and I made a lot of friends that I’m still friends with to this day. Especially folks in Nova Scotia. It brought a lot of good people together.”
Perhaps most famously, there was Jennie Shontell, an elderly Bucksport woman who appeared on the “Jamboree” multiple times over the years to sing a spirited version of “On The Wings Of A Dove,” a country song first made famous by Ferlin Husky.
To accommodate the people who would show up to watch the show — and to move to a larger, more convenient location — Stacey in 1976 bought a motel on Wilson Street in Brewer and dubbed it Stacey’s Plaza Motel. WVII started taping the show in the motel’s lively on-site bar and lounge.
Around the same time, WVII became available in Atlantic Canada.
“The Canadians really wanted to watch ‘Monday Night Football,’” Stacey said. “Getting the ‘Jamboree’ was just extra, but they took to it.”
The show was an almost immediate success in the Maritimes, and soon enough, the tourists began arriving in the Bangor area. They could come to town, stay at the motel, do their shopping and dining, then take in the show taping in the evening.
“It was a total package,” Stacey said. “And it allowed us to make a little money off it.”
Maritimers and Mainers often find kindred spirits in each other. Even though a border separates them, there’s a shared cultural heritage in the many people of French, Irish, Scottish and English ancestry. There’s also a shared spirit of self-reliance, forthrightness and distrust of moneyed, patronizing “people from away.”
Cliff Murphy, an ethnomusicologist who wrote the book “Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England,” said that sense of authenticity propelled the “Jamboree’s” cross-border popularity. These were real Americans, singing songs about working people — songs not too far off from the Celtic or English folk songs played by Maritime musicians at social gatherings.
“It may sound odd to us today, but I think to a Canadian audience these country singers had this sense of American authenticity. They seemed like the real deal,” said Murphy, also the director of Folk and Traditional Arts for the National Endowment for the Arts. “There really was a bit of a mystique about it. It was familiar, and yet it was distinctly American.”
It also helped that there was a colorful cast of characters on every week, from the unflappable host Tenan, to Stacey himself, the jolly, gregarious impresario. Stacey was perhaps best known for his ads, which he mostly ad-libbed, on the fly — including his most famous catchphrase about his hands stinking of gas.
“It was five seconds to air, and I didn’t know what I was going to say, so when we went live I just threw up my hands and there you go,” Stacey said. “I just thought up all the ads, on the spot. I guess people just liked the way I talked.”
After the Jamboree
By the early 1980s, the show’s reputation had grown beyond Maine and the Maritimes. Stacey fielded offers from Johnny Carson, David Letterman and “Good Morning America” to appear on national television with some of the “Jamboree” crew, though he only accepted the offer from “Good Morning America,” as he was worried Carson or Letterman would make fun of them.
Around the same time, however, WVII’s price for sponsorship of the show had ballooned. In 1984, Stacey decided to pull his sponsorship, and the show went off the air.
“It just stopped being worth it,” said Stacey, who with his wife, Sue, had raised six children (they now have 13 grandchildren). “It wasn’t for any other reason, it was just getting so expensive.”
Stacey for a time booked country concerts in the Bangor area, featuring luminaries such as Porter Waggoner, Hank Snow, Johnny Paycheck, the Charlie Daniels Band and Bangor’s own Dick Curless. He kept busy with the motel, and with other business dealings in the area.
By 1995, however, he was largely retired. He sold the fuel marts in the 1980s, and in 1997, he sold his last remaining business: the motel, at one time the heart of Stacey’s honky-tonkin’ empire. Developers tore the motel down and built an 11,000-square-foot Rite Aid on the site, which is itself now closed.
Stacey and his wife now spend most of their year in Florida, though they come up to Maine for the summer. At age 82, life is a bit quieter for Stacey, though he maintains a large network of friends and family, and his name has stayed in the public eye through DVDs and YouTube videos from the “Jamboree” days.
There have been periodic reunions of the old gang, showcasing musicians who are still around; Tenan, Shontell and others have passed over the years. Most recently, there was an event held in 2009 in Saint John, New Brunswick, a showcase at the Bangor State Fair in 2010, and one in Calais in 2011, which Stacey dubbed the “last one ever.”
Though the idea of a live broadcast on local television featuring local amateurs seems like an idea of the past, it could be argued that YouTube — with its freewheeling mixture of people with real talent and other less-talented folks — bears some resemblance to what the “Jamboree” did 40 years ago.
“I’d do another reunion show, if I were physically able,” Stacey said. “I do hear from younger folks who say their mom or dad loved our program or that their parents were musicians and now they themselves play music. I hear stuff like that all the time. That’s a nice thing to hear.”