Big D Jamboree was a Dallas-based barn dance and radio program. Building on the success of country music radio programs like WSM's Grand Ole Opry (Nashville) and WLS's National Barn Dance (Chicago), regional barn dances sprouted up across the country throughout the 1940s. By the end of that decade, more than 600 American radio stations tried this live country music format.
One of the biggest such shows was KRLD's Big D Jamboree. This revered radio show grew out of a weekly live-music program called the Texas State Barn Dance, which began in Dallas in 1946. This show was strictly a live-audience program and was not broadcast over the radio until early 1948. The program initially spent a few months on WFAA, where it was called the Lone Star Jamboree, but finally found its home on KRLD and was permanently renamed Big D Jamboree. The show first aired on KRLD on October 16, 1948. Its immediate popularity came partly because its debut coincided with the State Fair of Texas, held each fall in Dallas. Johnny Hicks was the primary host.
The Jamboree aired from a multi-purpose arena at the corner of Cadiz and Industrial boulevards, a center of country music nightclubs in Dallas. This building, the Sportatorium, also hosted other major events, most notably the professional wrestling matches produced by building owner and Jamboree co-producer Ed McLemore. The original building was noted for its octagonal design and also for its seating capacity of more than 6,000. The original Sportatorium burned down in a 1953 blaze rumored to have been set by a rival wrestling promoter. For a time, the Jamboree relocated to the Livestock Pavilion at Fair Park until a new Sportatorium was built four months later. On September 2, 1953, the Jamboree returned to the Sportatorium and was broadcast from this new venue for its remaining years.
The Big D Jamboree was inspired by other radio programs of the time, including the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. Though the Big D Jamboree was never as prominent as either of these two shows, it was important in Texas and served as a springboard to fame. The show also provided weekly entertainment for as many as 5,000 attending patrons and countless radio listeners within KRLD's 50,000-watt broadcast range, which could reach listeners in forty states. During its peak the show aired four hours each Saturday night and featured between twenty and fifty performers a week.
The Jamboree managed to bring in an amazing array of country performers, including Johnny Cash, Ronnie Dawson, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Homer and Jethro, Wanda Jackson, Ray Price, Rose Maddox, Moon Mullican, Charline Arthur, Carl Perkins, Webb Pierce, Elvis Presley, Hank Thompson, Floyd Tillman, Hank Snow, and Hank Williams. It vigorously promoted local talent as well, in no small part because it could not afford to fill its air-time with well-known artists. Presenting local talent was slightly against the grain of radio barn dances, which tended to promote national, more-recognizable acts. In this practice and others the Jamboree broke with an established formula in programming in order to create a strong marketing niche for itself.
When the show first started in 1948, the most popular form of country music in North Texas was western swing. But the Jamboree preferred artists who played other styles of country music, styles more geared towards pop and honky-tonk. The show thus served as an alternative venue for country music within the region and also prepared itself for reaching audiences outside of North Texas. In the mid-1950s, the Jamboree continued bucking proven formulas by playing a different type of country music than the other radio barn dances. The Jamboree catered to youth by featuring rockabilly artists. This kept the program successful throughout the burgeoning years of rockabilly.
Although the show never reached the heights of the Opry or the Hayride, the Jamboree was picked up by the CBS radio network and incorporated into the network's weekly Saturday Night Country Style program. This nationally broadcast radio show alternated various regional country music radio programs (including both the Opry and the Hayride) in its Saturday night spot. Saturday Night Country Style was also broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
By the end of the 1950s, Big D Jamboree's audience had dwindled and the format and medium had become increasingly outdated. Americans were more fascinated by television in their homes and by rock-and-roll music than by locally produced country music variety shows broadcast over the radio. The show struggled on during the early 1960s and for a time was emceed by Louisiana Hayride founder Horace Lee Logan until it ended for good in 1966.
In 2000 Dragon Street Records released The Big "D" Jamboree LIVE, Volumes 1 & 2, an anthology of many performances from the program. The label has since issued other compilations profiling the songs of various artists. The Sportatorium, longtime venue of the program, was demolished in 2003.