RenfroValley - Moving Toward Tomorrow

By Joyce Trammell

I cannot think of Renfro Valley without thinking of my father. I remember him on Saturday night sitting in front of the radio, listening to those faceless voices of the Kentucky mountain folk and their music. Renfro Valley to me, a child, was a faraway place where someone joked about "Prince Albert in a can" and everyone talked like my teacher told me not to talk.

But so many people had moved from the Kentucky mountains to find jobs in the northern cities that the radio broadcasts from the Valley became their link to home.

The coming of TV lost the Valley to many of us but in some places it tenaciously hung on through the years and the audience still came to the barn.

I don't think I ever really appreciated what Renfro Valley meant to so many people until my first visit there a few weeks ago.

As I sat in a small theater in the upstairs corner of Renfro Valley Country Music Museum, I listened to a voice that I had not heard in some forty years. Playing was a recording of John Lair's voice as he invited us to "the valley where time stands still."

I had forgotten what it is like to see only the magic of the mind's eye. How little I had appreciated those people like John Lair who with words could make you believe that you were actually sitting on the front porch of your grandmother's house on a warm, liquid summer night, watching the fireflies dance in and out of the moonlight shadows. He reassured us when he said that somewhere in the distance a hound moaned his soulful song and all was well with the world.

Mr. Lair realized his dream when on November 4, 1939, the first broadcast of the Renfro Valley Saturday Night Barn Dance, the highly successful program over Cincinnati radio station WLW, originated directly from Renfro Valley, Ky.

Such names as Red Foley, Homer and Jethro, Lily May Ledford and the Coon Creek Girls would play at the barn.

The girls, just prior to the 1939 broadcast, had performed, at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, for the king and queen of England.

King George VI was so impressed with their Kentucky mountain songs, which in many ways reflected the folk music of his country, that he left the White House with several copies of their songs.

"In 1942, a 19-year-old young man was offered a job at Renfro with the Singing Crusaders Quartet and he became an original member of the Sunday Morning Gatherin'. In 1955 this young man, Glenn Pennington, left to enter the automobile business. He was to return from 1976 to 1979 as part owner of Renfro Valley along with Lair and Alpha Smith.

After John Lair died, Glenn, along with two new partners, Ralph Gabbard, a Lexington television executive, and Warren Rosenthal, the former head of Jerrico, Inc., purchased Renfro Valley.

They have just opened "a new 1,500-seat auditorium designed in the style of the Old Barn, but featuring state-of-the-art lighting and sound, padded seats and air conditioning." A craft village, the Country Music Museum, a new motel and campground, a new festival area, a trade fair and flea market, and a theme park are in the tomorrow."

Renfro Valley, with the help of its new owners, is moving toward tomorrow.