Oregon Jamboree’s big fan: Sweet Home woman has been to every festival since 1992

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

Every year for nearly three decades, the heart of Irene Kennedy is filled with pride as top country music artists come to her little home town and sing for her.

Granted, they’re singing for all fans, but to Kennedy, it’s a pretty special moment.

“I can’t believe that these people are coming to my town, and I’m gonna be there,” said Kennedy, for whom, and husband Bill, this Jamboree will be No. 27. “And this year tops everything.”

Kennedy went to her first concert when she was 14 years old, to see Hank Williams, Sr. at the Civic Auditorium in Portland. Now, nearly 70 years later, she will get to see his son, Hank Williams, Jr., and fans may have her to thank for it.

Oregon Jamboree Festival Director Robert Shamek said he’s been trying to get Hank Williams Jr. for awhile, but it may very likely have been Kennedy who convinced him to sign on.

She sent this year’s headliner a six-page letter letting him know that seeing him in concert is No. 1 on her bucket list. She went on:

“I won’t impress you. You won’t get a bunch of money because we don’t have it. The town has lost a lot through the years. You’ll go away from here and you’ll forget about us. But when you get here, you’ll never forget that you were here.”

Kennedy asked Robert Shamek, Oregon Jamboree festival director, to review the letter first, and he told her that if the letter didn’t convince Williams to come, there’d no longer be any sense in trying to get him, she said. But the letter worked.

“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but about two weeks later, he said ‘yes,'” Shamek said.

The Jamboree is a very big deal for Kennedy, soon to be 84.

Earlier this week she was busy cooking up spaghetti and baked beans as she prepared for some 25 guests – family and friends – whom she expects for the festival.

Kennedy stays abreast of the contemporary country music scene, and even attended the Garth Brooks concert in Eugene last month, though, she admitted, she’d rather have seen him at the Jamboree.

“I was born loving country music,” she said. “There’s a few other good songs out there, but country music is my stuff. It usually has a story to it and makes sense, and some of the best singers in the whole world are country.”

She’s been to every single Jamboree, and she lines the wall of her staircase with each year’s poster. She even told Jamboree management to keep her money for the one festival that was canceled, in 1998.

She can talk for hours about all her Jamboree adventures.

She remembers the first very one.

“I thought to myself, ‘Here I am sitting right here in front of Wynonna (Judd), right here in my town.'”

She recalls convincing Chris Jensen to sing “Buy Me a Boat” twice, and the time Aaron Tippin built a bike on stage while singing.

“I could not take my eyes off Reba or Sammy Kershaw,” she said of their performances. “They were just spectacular!”

She recalled spending time backstage with Confederate Railroad, Travis Tritt, Miranda Lambert, Chris Jensen, Keith Urban, Toby Keith and many more.

“My very favorite is Miranda Lambert. I remember when she was on that Nashville star show and she come on, and I said to Bill ‘she’s gonna be a winner.’ Well, she was third. And when I got down there and talked to her, she said ‘I did not win that.’ And I said, ‘Do you think you lost? Look where you are now. And where’s the two guys that won over you?'”

This year, Kennedy has the option to have lunch with Neal McCoy. They’ve met before.

She recalled a Thursday night when she was at A&W, and she was surprised to recognize McCoy standing outside.

“He was looking at me and I was looking at him, and he said ‘Do I know you?’ And I said, ‘No, but I know you.'”

Kennedy hasn’t always had backstage privileges. She and Bill spent the first several years waiting overnight in line with friends.

“We used to stay out in the line all night long and meet new people and make friends,” Bill said. “We’d stay out there and play cards and just have a good time.”

Having worked at the festivals and built relationships with festival staff, she’d gotten to know them, and they would see her sleeping outside and finally decided to do something about it, she said.

“One morning they came to me and said, ‘You’re going in first today. We’re sick of seeing you every year, staying all night down here.’ I said, ‘I don’t mind waiting my turn,’ but they said ‘You’re going to do what we tell ya.'”

Despite a disgruntled security guard, Kennedy was allowed in before any other guest. After that, she decided she would buy premiere passes.

“I can’t expect them to do this for me every year,” she told her friends.

Now she enjoys her regular seat, in the fifth row from stage, and is often given backstage passes to meet her favorite singers, she said.

“Travis Tritt, who’s one of my favorite people in the whole world, the Jamboree surprised me with a backstage pass. That was the first time I’d been, and I’ve been back there with him three times now.”

Kennedy says she’s grateful to the people who run Oregon Jamboree, and appreciates how well they treat her.

“She drops by the Jamboree office at least once a month,” Shamek noted.

Kennedy often tells them who she’d like to see in concert, and isn’t afraid to admit they indulge her requests.

She hopes to see many of her favorite performers return to the Jamboree – Alan Jackson, Confederate Railroad, Tim McGraw, Chris Jensen.

She’s not as ambulatory as she used to be and says she has to use a wheelchair when she goes to the festival.

How many more posters will line her walls in the future, no one knows.

But Kennedy knows one thing for sure: “I’m gonna have to be dead before I stop going.”