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It All Happened in Renfro Valley

It All Happened in Renfro Valley

Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    It All Happened in Renfro Valley
    Book Description:

    For sixty years, Renfro Valley has highlighted some of the biggest and most influential names in country and folk music. The show began in the 1930s as a combination radio broadcast and stage performance, and today it has grown into an array of shows and headliner concerts featuring old-time country music, country gospel, modern country, bluegrass, and comedy acts. John Lair, the ambitious and deeply committed founder of Renfro Valley, was fascinated with the past. He created theRenfro Valley Barn Danceto give radio listeners the experience of an old-fashioned rural hoe-down. He resisted the encroachment of popular "cowboy songs" and kept the stage and the airwaves filled with authentic Kentucky mountain music. Lair's vision struck a chord with music fans: on some Saturday nights, more than ten thousand people arrived at Renfro Valley and performances went on all night to accommodate the audiences. Pete Stamper, a forty-seven year veteran of Renfro Valley, traces the show's history from its early radio days in Cincinnati and Chicago, through the glory years in the 1940s, the lean times in the 1960s when rock and roll seemed to take over the music scene, to its renewed popularity in the 1990s. Once known as "the valley where time stands still," Renfro Valley has updated its programming while maintaining the feel of the folk culture on which it was founded. Red Foley, the Coon Creek Girls, Slim Miller, Pee Wee King, Old Joe Clark, and a host of other musicians and performers helped shape the development of Renfro Valley. Stamper describes the role of the Valley in the commercial history of country music and highlights John Lair's invaluable contribution to country music as a talent scout, businessman, and collector of traditional music of the South.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4834-2
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. A Note from Dolly Parton
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    Wayne W. Daniel

    Renfro Valley, Kentucky, is located in Rockcastle County on the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest, near the intersection of Interstate 75 and U.S. 25. It is sixty miles south of Lexington, Kentucky, and 120 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee. At first, Renfro was merely the name of a creek that trickled through the forests and meadows near Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, and was known only to the few mountain folks who called the area home. Today, Renfro Valley is an entertainment complex whose nucleus is country music in all its various forms and related genres. As a mecca for...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. 1930 to 1950

    • The Early Years of John Lair
      (pp. 3-14)

      On November 4, 1939, the doors of the Old Barn opened on the very first performance of theRenfro Valley Barn Dancefrom Renfro Valley. But that is not where we start. The Renfro Valley Folks were organized in Cincinnati two years prior to this big grand opening. But even that’s not the beginning.

      To tell the Renfro Valley story we have to go way back, back to 1894. On July 1st of that year the second child and only son of Isabelle Coffey and Thomas Bert Lair was born and named for all his childless uncles, John Allen Leander...

    • The Beginning of the Valley Where Time Stands Still
      (pp. 15-34)

      Before they knew it, before they expected it to happen, the buildings were up in Renfro Valley. The Lodge, the tourist court and, of course, the big Show Barn. The Renfro Valley Folks were ready for their first performance of theRenfro Valley Barn Dancefrom the stage of the Old Barn in their new home at Renfro Valley. Whitey told us that Renfro Valley grew and prospered right from the start. They signed a lot of new talent, the barn was packed every Saturday night, and their road shows were breaking house records everywhere. Although theRenfro Valley Barn...

  7. 1950 to 1960

    • Entertainers of the Changing Times
      (pp. 37-43)

      TheBarn Dancewas well into its eleventh year before I learned there was such a show, and two more years went by before I got the opportunity to be a part of it. As much fun as it would have been to have been a part of those first thirteen years, I much more prefer to have been a part of the past thirteen and now, in my forty-seventh year, I’m looking forward to the future. Since I have had an opportunity to work with so many of the entertainers who were here in the beginning, I feel as...

    • Days of Big-Time Radio
      (pp. 44-61)

      The fifties brought something brand new for Renfro Valley, General Foods on the CBS network. This was to the credit of a young man by the name of Tom Wood, a New York advertising executive who had roots in Rockcastle County. In Tom’s own words, he explained it like this: “At the age of twenty-seven with no experience whatsoever, I quit my job in the advertising department at General Foods in New York and six months later I sold the entire sponsorship of Renfro Valley back to my friends at General Foods. It was a $1 million package consisting of...

    • WRVK
      (pp. 62-76)

      In April 1957, Renfro Valley’s little radio station, WRVK, made its debut on the air. It came on with the fanfare fitting of a 50,000 watter. Tom Hargis, Mr. Lair’s partner in this venture, was fresh out of Hollywood. The two of them had worked together at WLS in Chicago, where Tom had also met Gene Autry. His years in Hollywood were spent as producer, director and editor of western radio shows for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and other cowboy stars. Hollywood actors and actresses had recorded messages of good wishes for broadcast on that opening day, along with recordings...

  8. 1960 to 1970

    • Years of Disappointments
      (pp. 79-89)

      Though time continued to move, life as we knew it came to pretty much a standstill in January and February 1960, when the worst winter storm in quite a few years hit the Valley. The worry over our troubled times got a rest as the weather took over first place in our conversation. For the first time ever, I believe, theBarn Dancehad to be canceled two weeks in a row. Many times in the dead of winter we had to move the show over to our little studio building, playing to a couple of dozen people or less....

    • Stars of the Silver Screen
      (pp. 90-97)

      Some of the best things that happen to you somehow find a way of happening when times are at their worst. I don’t think I can emphasize enough just how bad it was looking for Renfro Valley folks in the early sixties. Then, from out of nowhere it seemed, a couple of gentlemen, strangers to most of us, showed up in the Valley one day to make a movie. Since they were from the city of Louisville, Kentucky, Renfro Valley was no stranger to them. I’m sure they had been watching the success of movies with a country music theme...

    • The Boss Steps Down
      (pp. 98-101)

      With the excitement of our new-found fame, something else was taking place. I can’t for the life of me remember the first time that I heard that John just might sell Renfro Valley, but we began to hear talk of his retirement; after all, he was seventy-one. I remember hearing that Mrs. Lair would like to settle down, maybe in Florida, but I don’t think any of us took any of this talk too seriously. Maybe because we just couldn’t imagine Renfro Valley without John Lair at the helm. Even after I learned that there was a country music concern...

    • The Gatherin’
      (pp. 102-110)

      The simplicity of theGatherin’sformat didn’t come about out of necessity; it was written in and became its strongest feature, though the least understood. Mr. Lair’s approach was to convey to the listening audience life in this little settlement as uncomplicated and never-changing in style. It was truly the “valley where time stands still.” I have a picture of the cast taken sometime around the first broadcast. It was nine years on up the road before I watched my first program. My first impression was not of the program itself, but of how different the atmosphere around theGatherin’...

    • Who’s on First?
      (pp. 111-118)

      TheBarn Dancewas faring a whole lot better at the close of the sixties than in the recent past. Nick Foley had joined the cast. Nick was from over in the Berea area, hometown of the late Red Foley; Nick claimed to be a distant cousin of Red. And the Bluegrass Drifters, Renfro Valley’s second Bluegrass band, was expanding its role on the show. They would establish themselves as a permanent fixture in one way or the other for a long time to come. The group included lead singer/guitar player John Cosby; Bill Ferguson, playing bass; Charles Durham, playing...

  9. 1970 to 1980

    • Confusion Reigns
      (pp. 121-136)

      By 1970 the stations carrying theGatherin’had grown to eighty, more than doubling in just a year’s time. Hal Smith’s KOA campgrounds opened a half mile out of the Valley. It was evident that Renfro Valley was attracting some attention, as we were treated to occasional visits by some of the entertainers from other shows around the country.

      Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart were long-time friends of the Valley and chose our Old Barn and locations around the Valley to film a portion of their moviePetticoat Junction. I don’t know if Hank Cochran and Jeannie Seely spent...

    • Back in the Saddle Again
      (pp. 137-148)

      In January 1975, I left Renfro Valley for my second time. I was given an honor that comes to very few in their careers. I was invited to travel a few months with the prettiest, most talented, and most popular female star in all of show business, Dolly Parton, and her Traveling Family Band. I have quite a few memories from those months, but the one I’ll record here was the day when Dolly and Renfro Valley and I all came together for the first time. While I was on the road with her I kept my home here in...

    • Declining Years of John Lair
      (pp. 149-152)

      Ralph Gabbard, Berea native and the country’s youngest general manager of a major TV station, WKYT-TV in Lexington, was showing an interest in Renfro Valley again in August 1977. I say again, as he had earlier as a teenager picked up some of his broadcasting education at our little WRVK radio station, and later as a television producer he filmed the first video of the Renfro ValleySunday Morning Gatherin’. He was now producing a TV show that included a portion of theBarn DanceandGatherin’, including an interview with John Lair hosted by songwriter-entertainer John Ireson, an occasional...

  10. 1980s

    • Memorable Days
      (pp. 155-160)

      The forty-first season of theRenfro Valley Barn Danceopened up in the spring of 1980, coming in like a lamb and going out the same way. When Susan Tomes joined the Renfro Valley Folks it was the biggest news event I can think of, but for some reason our little newspaper didn’t even give her a mention. She didn’t even make it into Virginia Sutton’s new cookbook, which published favorite recipes of Virginia’s and other talent on theBarn Dance. It could be that the book was too far along in its planning before Susan joined us or it...

    • From Out of the Wings
      (pp. 161-170)

      Only two of John Lair’s four daughters, Ann Henderson and Jenny Lee King, were in a position to lend a hand in the operation. Nancy and Barbara lived too far away to be of much help. Jenny Lee was the first to step out of the wings. She began helping Mr. Lair prior to his death with theBugleand promoting the Valley at various tourist functions around the state. She was also promoting some special events, especially her ’Lasses Festival each October.

      After a while Ann began to take charge, and, at Mr. Lair’s death, she was in the...

    • Exciting Times and Exciting People
      (pp. 171-178)

      In the next few days, remembering I once loaned a spare and waited and got left behind, I decided I could not afford to wait this time. So, after talking it over with Minnie Lee, I decided I would go looking for a job in Branson, Missouri. She liked the years that we’d lived in Springfield and thought she would like to live there again. A friend of mine at Dollywood gave me the name of the lady who booked the talent for Silver Dollar City and some of the other shows, so I gave her a call. This was...

    • 1989 News from the Bugle
      (pp. 179-182)

      January and February 1989 were business as usual. The January story in theBugleannouncing the special events for the year that had been set on our calendar the previous fall caused us to look back over the first fifty years in the life and times of our little valley. We had decided on a special gospel sing for April and the second annual Family Night, also in April. This event recognized the families of our guests and entertainers alike, since family has always been important at Renfro Valley. Susan Tomes received special recognition for having the most family members...

  11. 1990s

    • Time Stopped Standing Still
      (pp. 185-191)

      The changes in Renfro Valley were introduced by the owners to the world by visible actions. I suppose other folks in other places may have been used to things getting done on a big scale, but here in Renfro Valley we were accustomed to talking about it for at least a year before getting started. The summer of 1989 was something to write home about. It looked like Home on the Range where the bulldozers roam.

      Ambitious undertakings, but Glen Pennington assured me that this group that he had hand-picked for the job were well-qualified to get it done. At...

    • Footsteps
      (pp. 192-196)

      The big, log museum building was doubled in size with one feature that is still hard for me to believe today—an elevator in Renfro Valley! It replaced the big, wide stairs that came up from the front of the breezeway, although new stairways were installed in the new section. But the elevator completely eliminated the stairs that went up from the hallway inside the broadcast studios and ran up to the old music library and into the museum music room.

      I wondered if the changes would disturb the ghost who haunted that big, log building. They had walked those...

    • The New Guard
      (pp. 197-205)

      Ralph Gabbard made two more early appointments to the Renfro Valley Folks, Jim Tillery and Tom Bennett. Jim was a native of Berea. He had spent a number of years in the broadcast business in Kentucky, Florida, and Oklahoma and was appointed to the position of president and general manager. He was our third general manager in less than a year, and he was short-lived in that role.

      Tom Bennett had been project manager for WKYT-TV in Lexington and came on as vice-president of operations. Tom fit right in with the many bulldozers that were on the property, and I...

    • The Changing of the Guard
      (pp. 206-211)

      I heard through the grapevine later in the year that there was to be another change in ownership. Once again, Warren Rosenthal would replay the role of Freeman Keyes and, figuratively speaking, turn the investment over to Ralph Gabbard and some other parties for a dollar. Just before the opening of the fifty-third season there was a meeting at Old Joe’s Restaurant of entertainers, management, and owners. The announcement was made public. Warren explained that he was bowing out to enjoy his retirement. He said he would be paying us a visit from time to time and would continue in...

    • A Family Affair
      (pp. 212-217)

      As I have mentioned and you will hear a time or two each time you’re here, the Renfro Valley Folks are a family, and more and more we’re becoming families within that family. When Scott Thompson joined his dad, Glenn, in theJamboreeBand, it set the stage for one of the most visible families we’ve had. Glenn played the lead guitar; Scott was at the drums. Retha, Glenn’s wife, was the long-time sound technician for our shows, and when Scott married Coon Creek Girl Jennifer Wrinkle, every member of the Thompson family was a member of the Renfro Valley...

    • In Closing
      (pp. 218-222)

      A quote from the past comes to mind right here and it goes something like this, in fact it goes exactly like this: “Just imagine what this place could be if the right person ever gets ahold of it.” Now if I’d heard that just once, twice, or three times, it would be entirely out of place here. But I’ve heard it said so many times from so many that it would be an injustice to this effort to leave it out. I have given it a lot of thought and, in my judgment as a long-time entertainer in spite...

  12. Appendix: Sixty Years of Renfro Valley Talent
    (pp. 223-228)
  13. Index
    (pp. 229-241)