The History of Renfro Valley
Written by RenfroValley's own Pete Stamper
Renfro Valley first began in the mind and heart of John Lair, in the big city of Chicago in the early 30's. He was there working with an insurance company and began to listen to this new thing called radio.
The station was WLS. He couldn't help but notice a singer by the name of Bradley Kincaid who specialized in the kind of music he, himself, grew up with back in Rockcastle Co. Kentucky. His interest in the stations programming grew until he sought and was given a job in the music library. He was instrumental in bringing a number of singers and musicians from "back home" to the station. Among those was Red Foley from near by Berea. After a time, helping with the station's Saturday night show the National Barn Dance, John began to think of a show of his own. There was only one problem, he was a homesick boy and the only way he could satisfy his love for this new adventure in entertainment, was if he could take it back to Renfro Valley with him. With Foley's help they set out to do just that. They sold another entertainer, Whitey Ford, and Red's brother Cotton, on the idea and "Renfro Valley Folks" were born.
The show, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, first opened in Cincinnati on October 9, 1937. For two years, on WLW radio, in the city of Cincinnati and Dayton Ohio, the Saturday night show continued while the big show barn and the Log Lodge and Tourist Court was being built down home in Renfro Valley Kentucky. Most didn't give this new adventure a chance of success. Situated along the Dixie Highway, on the North bank of Renfro Creek, out in the middle of nowhere, 125 miles from the nearest radio station, the big barn was viewed as a future tobacco barn by most around the area. What they didn't take into consideration was the power of radio and the two years the Renfro Valley Barn Dance had in building a loyal audience on WLW. On November 4th, 1939 the doors swung open in the Old Barn and the WLW announcer was heard to say, "And now friends, by way of the magic carpet of radio, we take you to the big Old Barn in Renfro Valley Kentucky with John Lair and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance". That was seventy two years ago and while radio has seen it's glory days come and go, the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center continues with excitement week after week, with more performances than ever before.
After the first year on WLW , WHAS in Louisville Kentucky took over the broadcasts and went from Saturday night only to as many as twenty radio programs a week out of the Valley. Broadcasts from "hay rides", "possum hunts" and "lasses making" were some of the adventures Renfro Valley took their listening audience on. In 1943 the sponsor asked for a Sunday program that was not "religious" in nature but would fit into the Sunday format, and the Renfro Valley Gatherin' was born. It is now the second oldest continuous radio broadcast in the nation. The Country Store program on the CBS network was broadcast live from what is now the Music Store, (some of the programs are still available on CD in the store).
The fifties brought a decline in the radio broadcasts as the new fangled thing called Television began to take over. In 1953, Hollywood chose Renfro Valley for the premier of their movie "It Happens Every Thursday", a movie about the life of a little country newspaper. It was a weekend event that involved the stars of the movie, Barn Dance entertainers, and all the local newspapers in the area. In 1956 the sponsor of the radio broadcast came into Renfro Valley with a television crew and equipment to film a series of TV programs similar to the radio broadcasts. They were great shows but the expense at the time for doing remote programs like that were just too great and John lair didn't think leaving the Valley that he loved and had sold to his listening audience for so long , and going into a "city" studio was a good idea. The "ups and downs" for Renfro Valley have been with us from the beginning. The lowest time was in 1964 when John Lair could no longer pay a salary to his entertainers and to keep the doors open, he split the ticket sales with them. No one made any money but the "fun and frolic" continued until things got better. The following year a film producer came in to do a movie about the Valley, it played in theaters and drive-ins under the title of "John Lair's Renfro Valley Barn Dance". The film is owned by Warner Brothers of Hollywood and is no longer available to the public. Country star Pee Wee King also used the Valley to film part of a movie he made in the mid 1960's.
In 1966, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran, and music publisher Hal Smith of Goodlettsville, Tennessee leased the Valley with the option of buying. John Lair, of course, never believed they would follow through with the purchase of the Valley but Hal Smith alone did buy it all in 1968. It was during this time, bluegrass artist Mac Wiseman came into the Valley and started the now famous Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival in 1970. John Lair continued living in his home in the heart of the Valley and spent every waking hour planning on getting it all back. That came about in 1976 and in the early 1980's the Lairs started what is now called the Harvest Festival. In 1984 the Renfro Valley show was featured at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. Some of the talent traveled to the state capitol in the mid 1980's to perform before the House of Representatives in order to make the Valley the location of Kentucky's country music capitol. The successful event would later bring about the Valley becoming the location for the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
After the death of John Lair in 1985 the Lair family decided they could no longer manage the Valley. They sold it in its 50th year to a group headed by Warren Rosenthal, founder of Jerry's and Long John Silver's restaurants, of Lexington, KY. Under his command, the New Barn was built along with the Renfro village and RV park. Two of his partners at the time were Ralph Gabbard, CEO of channel 27 out of Lexington, and Glen Pennington, long time entertainer at the Valley. It was under their direction a number of TV shows were produced in the early 1990's. It was in 1993 that a decision was made to add a show during the Christmas season called "Christmas in the Valley". It has proven to be the most successful addition to the show line-up ever made. This production is watched by churches, school groups, and bus loads of regular fans from all over Kentucky and surrounding states each year. Around 2000 the entire Valley, "lock, stock, and barrel" was given to the Board of Directors of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum. During this time two fans of Renfro Valley began making their appearances in front row seats about every weekend. They purchased tickets to more than 1100 shows before striking up a deal to buy the Valley. This wonderful couple was Don and Vera Evans. Under their direction other special shows were added but they made it their mission that the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, the show that started it all, and the Old Barn itself would never change. Just good ol' fashioned, Saturday night "fun and frolic", the kind you don't have to be ashamed of on Sunday morning.