One of my earliest — and most vivid — memories is of the roadside in Renfro Valley, Kentucky. What was so impressive about the side of the road was that cars were parked along it, bumper to bumper. Nice cars, rusted-out cars, trucks with their beds packed full of people. And there was a throng of people walking beside the cars, all marching along as if on a common journey. They were headed to what is now the Old Barn at Renfro Valley, and they were going to see Loretta Lynn.
We parked far up the valley and made this same trek. My parents and aunts and uncles and cousins. It was fall, and we could hear the first strains of the warmup band’s fiddles and banjos, drifting to us on crisp air. We stood in line a long time, which was a marvel to me, as my father was not a patient man and stood in line for very few things. But he was fine with waiting on “Loretty,” as we all called her.
As we made our way to the Old Barn, we all spoke of Loretty as if we knew her. She was one of us. She was just “an old country girl,” but she had made it. She had made it big. What made her even better was that she didn’t act as if she had hit the big time. In line, my aunt took long draws on her cigarette and talked about Loretty as if she were a lifelong friend. “She never changed the way she talked,” Aunt Sis said. “And she don’t put on.”
The Old Barn was filled to capacity. Everyone sang along. People cried when she sang “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. So many of them — like my mother and my aunts — were coal miner’s daughters, after all. My cousins and I did not run and play. We didn’t grow bored and beg to visit the concession stand. I, for one, was entranced. I couldn’t take my eyes off Loretta Lynn, leaning back into the song, talking to the audience as her band strummed behind her. But even more, I liked looking at the crowd. Even though I was very small, I was aware that we were all here sharing a common feeling.
I had always loved country music. I cannot remember a time when I was not aware of it, whether it was coming from my Aunt Sis’s kitchen radio while she washed dishes, or coming from my uncle’s fingers when he played the banjo at family gatherings. But that night at Renfro Valley, I was stunned to discover that other families loved it as well. As we listened, we were all in tune. It was like being in a crowd where everyone is saying the same prayer.
It was more than that Loretta Lynn was a fellow Eastern Kentuckian, more than the familiarity we felt with her. It was the feeling that only country music can give to a collection of people. Country has often been referred to as “the people’s music,” and on that night, I was sure of that much, even though I had never heard the term before, and would not have understood it anyway.
Loretta Lynn has long been a yearly highlight of Renfro Valley’s concert series. But there are many other singers and pickers — many of them unknowns — who have played the barns at Renfro Valley and moved audiences to feel the same thing we felt that night. In fact, the entertainment complex at Renfro Valley was one of the first places in the world to introduce the world to country and traditional music. There are three holy places in country music history. Nashville and Bristol are mentioned all the time. Renfro Valley is the least-known, but its importance to the origins of country music is just as significant as the Grand Ole Opry or the famous Bristol recording sessions.
Situated in the Cumberland Mountains of Rockcastle County, Kentucky, Renfro Valley was a sleepy farming town until 1939, when John Lair brought it to national prominence. Lair was raised near the valley and had always dreamed of having his own entertainment complex — a strange obsession for a young man growing up in the early 1900s. He grew up surrounded by what he called “hillbilly music” and always felt the need to preserve it. After a stint in the Army, Lair worked for one of the largest radio stations in the world, WLS in Chicago, where mountain music was becoming increasingly popular. Once he had enough money, he moved back home and bought a large portion of the bottomland that gave Renfro Valley its name.
When Lair began building his complex, consisting of a huge barn, a lodge, and a restaurant, locals scoffed at him as if he were Noah. Many predicted the barn would be filled with tobacco within six months. But as soon as Lair broadcast his first show from the barn in 1939, business boomed. The radio broadcast became a Sunday morning fixture for families all over the South, and pretty soon people wanted to see the old barn where the music was played.
People began to flood into town from as far away as Michigan and Georgia during a time when there were no interstate highways. Lair added tourist cabins, a music museum, a country store, and craft shops. By the early 1950s, he had become one of Kentucky’s most famous citizens; up until his death in 1985, he was rumored to own the largest collection of country and pioneer music in the world.
Regulars of the Renfro Valley Barndance show quickly became nationally-known musicians and singers. The Barndance produced acts such as Red Foley, the Coon Creek Girls, and Old Joe Clark. The show became so popular that Eleanor Roosevelt eventually invited them to perform at the White House in honor of the visiting King and Queen of England. Many struggling young acts received major attention when appearing on the Renfro Valley broadcasts, including Dolly Parton.