For years now, one of the hottest tickets in east Tennessee has been the Jimbo Whaley & Friends concert, held each spring to benefit a worthy organization in the region. In 2022, Whaley held his show on March 26 at the Country Tonite Theatre in Pigeon Forge, and donated $10,000 to the Isaiah 117 House in Sevier County.
A bluegrass boy from way back, Jimbo made his bones as a founding member of Pine Mountain Railroad back in the late ’90s. But he left the touring game when his daughter was born in 2004, and started an annual show tradition that has grown into a regional sensation. The first Jimbo Whaley & Friends show was held that year in support of a solo project he had released, and he says the response was way beyond his expectations.
“We sold over 400 tickets that night and everyone that came to the show received the CD as part of their ticket. I was really just trying to pay the expenses of producing the CD, so I was completely thrilled with the turnout.”
So he scheduled another the following year, and based it around a song he had written called The Kings of Orebank, in which the Pigeon Forge native explored his raising and family life.
“I wanted to do a song that was just written for my family, and I thought that I would only sing it one time, and that would be it. The Kings of Orebank is about a simpler time, and growing up with your family and best friends. It mentions places that were dear to me and are no longer there. While I was just thinking about my area and my family, the song has always gotten a huge response wherever I perform it. Everybody has their own ‘Orebank’ road.”
That 2005 concert drew over 900 people, and Whaley said based on that attendance, “I knew that I had to do an annual show after that night, and I’ve been doing them ever since.”
Now bluegrass folks are well accustomed to the “So and So & Friends” concept, where an artist puts together a band of their picking buddies, but for Jimbo, it is another thing entirely. The 2022 show included more than 170 guest artists, with members from every high school choir in Sevier County coming to the stage.
“We actually performed Purple Rain from Prince with the choirs from Gatlinburg, Pittman, Northview, Pigeon Forge, Seymour, and Sevier County High. Most of those kids had no idea about the song, and more importantly, had never heard live bluegrass music. It was so much fun introducing them to the genre.”
He also featured some of his actual friends, like Gary ‘Biscuit’ Davis, Roger Helton, Abbey Tungett, Scott Carris, Turner Whaley, Ray Ball, Dr. Eric Littleton, Tara Thompson, and Reid Ballard.
To open the show in March, Whaley created a video spot with a catch phrase that led perfectly into the start of the performance.
“The opening song was Hay in the Barn, a song I wrote many years ago. The video spot was played pre-show with different people saying, ‘All the Hay’s in the Barn…’ I got the saying from my football coach in high cchool. The pep rally video you see was the first time I remember him saying it.”
Have a look…
Following an intermission, Whaley introduced the audience at the Country Tonite Theatre to the Voices of Lee, an a cappella ensemble from nearby Lee University.
“I have always tried to give our crowd something that they don’t expect. This year, the Voices of Lee performed to people who had no idea who they were. To say that they were incredible might be the biggest understatement I could make. I walked out from backstage and sat in the front row myself. Their performance was one that I will not forget.”
With a number of local sponsors helping to cover the cost of hosting the concert, Jimbo was able to double his normal charitable donation this year.
“I always go and meet with the organizations that I am helping. The story of children that are taken out of their homes for different reasons really touched me. If there is not a foster family ready and in place for these kids, they have to go and sit at a cold office. They could literally have to stay there for days. Isaiah 117 House is a place that accepts kids in transition to foster care. They love on those kids, spoil them, cloth them, feed them, and give them a wonderful place to sleep. They take the worst day in a child’s life and make it much more bearable. I was thrilled to hand them the check this year. In the past, we have done $5,000 to the causes. The show and everything around it were so successful this year, we gave them $10,000!”
Hats off to Jimbo Whaley, and his many friends, for keeping this show going for 18 years, only missing 2021 owing to COVID restrictions, and for helping to brighten the lives of foster children in his part of Tennessee.
You can follow Jimbo’s music with his band, Greenbrier, online.