… and so does the charm of old-fashioned fun in the Bluegrass State.
By George T. Wilson
In a dell surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky’s Renfro Valley Entertainment Center offers a touch of Americana that time may have forgotten but old-time country music fans love to remember.
Sixty-four years ago, a radio program called the Renfro Valley Barn Dance first originated from this gentle glen. Men, some wearing overalls and plaid shirts, and women, clad in calico dresses and cotton stockings, performed on a stage inside a barn. The entire affair was the brainchild of John Lair, who was born right there on the family farm.
The sounds of dulcimers and dobros, guitars and banjos, and mandolins and fiddles filled the night air. Lair’s country music program “” the only one originating from a pastoral setting at that time “” once competed with shows such as the Grand Ole Opry, Red Foley’s Ozark Jamboree, and the Chicago Barn Dance.
Although the “Renfro Valley Barn Dance” show is no longer on the radio, Renfro Valley’s “Sunday Morning Gatherin’ ” is the third-oldest continuously running radio program in America. Only the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia can boast greater longevity.
Back in the 1940s, it was not as easy for music fans to reach the valley as it is today. “I personally have talked with many visitors who remember coming to Renfro Valley 50 years ago via dirt roads “” occasionally fording streams to get here,” said Janice Zuccaro, editor of The Renfro Valley Bugle. But now visitors need only travel through Kentucky on Interstate 75 and take the Renfro Valley exit, #62 (approximately 50 miles south of Lexington). Each year more than a half-million visitors from throughout the United States and many other countries flock to hear and see performances by top-name artists such as Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Van Shelton, Connie Smith, Mike Snider, Ray Price, and the Oak Ridge Boys. In addition to country music shows, Renfro Valley programs also include gospel sings, comedy shows, and a Christmas program. John Lair might rub his eyes in disbelief if he could see his creation now, but he would not be surprised that the music he helped introduce has endured.
Many new features have been introduced at Renfro Valley since the Barn Dance program was first broadcast in 1939. Lair himself began a monthly newspaper and opened his own radio station, WRVK, in the early 1950s. A complex grew up around the barn over the years, including a museum and gift shops. Today Renfro Valley visitors may take a leisurely stroll through the old-time shopping village; enjoy dinner at the historic Lodge Restaurant or a snack at Old Joe’s Grill and Desserts; and stay at a full-service RV park. And that is only the beginning.
In addition to the regular programs and the top-notch artists in concert, annual festivals lure crowds by the thousands. They include the Old Joe Clark Bluegrass Festival, held on the Fourth of July weekend.
The month of October brings three festivals to Renfro Valley. The Appalachian Harvest Festival, to be held October 3,4, and 5 this year, includes clog dancing, country-style foods (such as molasses made with a mule-drawn press), blacksmithing and basket-weaving demonstrations, an antique farm machinery and steam engine show, and, of course, mountain music. The Gospel Music Celebration, three days of country gospel favorites performed by several groups, will be held October 16, 17, and 18. And the Fiddlers’ Festival, October 24, 25, and 26, will feature fiddlin’ in a variety of musical styles, such as mountain jigs, Cajun tunes, New England reels, polkas, waltzes, and Western swing. The holiday season brings with it “Christmas In The Valley,” offered this year from November 14 through December 13.
Concert prices at Renfro Valley vary quite a bit. Regularly scheduled programs, such as the Saturday mini-shows, cost as low as $4. Friday and Saturday Barn Dance tickets are $16 this year. Admission to see renowned entertainers such as Loretta Lynn can cost $33 or more. Regardless, you’ll never lack for entertainment. The show season runs from March through mid-December, but the full schedule of programs (Tuesday through Saturday) is offered from May through October.
The Renfro Valley Entertainment Center also is home to the new Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which celebrates the highlights of Kentucky-born stars. It’s been said that Kentucky has produced more country music performers than any other state. The first Hall of Fame members were inducted on February 28, 2002, and included Loretta Lynn, Tom T. Hall, Bill Monroe, Red Foley, The Everly Brothers, The Osborne Brothers, Rosemary Clooney, Grandpa Jones, Bradley Kincaid, John Lair, Jean Ritchie, and Merle Travis. The museum itself opened to the public in May 2002.
Interactive exhibits at the museum “” “Wall of Stars” and “Kentucky Home Place” “” honor the hundreds of Kentucky entertainers who may one day gain entry into the hallowed hall. The museum includes exhibit cases for instruments, artifacts, costumes, and memorabilia. Inductees are memorialized in acrylic plaques that are designed to look like antique show bills.
Inside an instrument room at the museum, visitors can see, touch, hear, and perform tunes. A functional sound booth enables them to sing and record themselves. A historical timeline includes exhibits and dioramas that explain how Kentucky music moved from the front porch to WHAS radio in the 1940s (the Louisville station that first presented the “Renfro Valley Barn Dance”) to bluegrass concerts on courthouse steps and all over Kentucky today.
Although Renfro Valley has changed with the times, there still are only two traffic lights in all of Rockcastle County. The area continues to live up to its nickname as “the valley where time stands still.” Although the Renfro entertainment complex now employs approximately 200 people during its peak time and is overseen by a board of directors, the management shows great reluctance to tinker with the success that Lair so carefully plotted.
For example, the aforementioned Sunday morning “Renfro Valley Gatherin’ ” show remains on the air after 60 years. However, Johnda Barker, director of marketing at the musical complex, said that the program is now prerecorded, not presented live. No matter: each Sunday at 8:30 a.m., from March through mid-December, folks who visit Renfro Valley can pay $5 and enjoy a great celebration of life in music and word that is still called the Sunday Renfro Valley Gatherin’. And more than 200 radio stations across the country, from Big Stone Gap, Virginia, to Quartzsite, Arizona, broadcast programs that originate at Renfro Valley.
Upon entering the complex, visitors can’t miss the bright yellow letters that adorn the roof of the old barn from which Renfro’s fame originated: “Home of Renfro Valley Barn Dance.” The old barn has changed a bit over the years with added insulation, heating, air-conditioning, theater seats, and improved stage lighting. But it is proof that dreams come true. Skeptics predicted that the barn would be used to store tobacco before Christmas of the first year Lair’s radio show went on the air, but he proved them wrong. Lair wrote 40 years ago in his book, Renfro Valley Then and Now, “Our Saturday night barn dance was the first ever put on from a real barn, with the central residents of the community doing the broadcast. We have made Saturday night in the barn an occasion for honoring the kind of fun nobody needs to be ashamed of on Sunday morning.”
As a youngster, John Lair plowed the fields of what is today Renfro Valley. When he went off as a soldier in World War I, he worked with Ziegfeld Follies veterans on army entertainment. After the war he worked for WLS radio in Chicago, which was broadcasting what it called “hillbilly music.” Lair began to dream of broadcasting country music from the hills where it had originated.
When the family farm had to be sold to settle his father’s debts, Lair did not give up. He taught school, worked at a weekly newspaper, and took a job with a large insurance company that sent him to Boston, and then to New York and Chicago. When Lair regained ownership of the family homestead, he set about erecting a large barn for shows, as well as a lodge and a dozen log tourist cabins.
Although Lair was not musically inclined, he had a remarkable flair for discovering talent that the public enjoyed. Among the names he helped to promote were Homer & Jethro, Clyde Julian “Red” Foley, the Duke of Paducah, Lily May and the Coon Creek Girls (an all-girl band that Lair formed), Old Joe Clark, and Merle Travis.
Two 50-year veterans of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance still take to the stage. One of them is Pete Stamper, a friend of John Lair’s. His book, It All Happened At Renfro Valley, was the first complete account of the role Renfro Valley has played in country music. Stamper performed with Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee for three years, one year at the Grand Ole Opry, and spent a year traveling with the Dolly Parton Show. Jim Gaskin is another walking encyclopedia of country music who visitors may see performing on the stage. He writes and narrates the Sunday Morning Gatherin’. Gaskin has mastered the guitar, bass fiddle, and autoharp, among others, and has worked with such pioneer performers as Bill Monroe, Carl Story, Jimmy Skinner, and Tex Ritter.
Today’s new performers have musical backgrounds that the first performers didn’t possess, yet they quickly become aware of the rich musical heritage they find at Renfro Valley. John Lair is probably somewhere applauding the fact that his musical contribution to America lives on.
The campground at Renfro Valley is open year-round and contains more than 100 full-hookup sites. Amenities include cable TV hookups, pull-throughs, a dump station, 24-hour security, a laundry, rest rooms, and activities such as shuffleboard and horseshoes. The campground is only a short distance away from the live music shows at Renfro Valley.
Entertainment at Renfro Valley is offered from March through mid-December. For more information about the show schedule or the campground, contact:
Renfro Valley Entertainment Center
Renfro Valley, KY 40473