steadying glimpse of pioneer America"
Night at Renfro Valley is the least well known of John
based radio programs, probably because it was on the air
only from August 1940 through April 1941.
It ran on the NBC Red Network from 8:30 to 9:00 EST, placing
it in unlikely competition with such popular Monday evening
programs as Amos 'n' Andy, Burns and Allen, The
and dance bands the likes of Duke Ellington and Hal Kemp.
The program is especially notable
for how Lair mixed entertainment with words of comfort and
inspiration, attempting to give voice
to his listeners’ war anxious thoughts, getting them
to donate books to Kentucky’s Pack Horse Library program,
and urging their support of the country’s first peacetime
military draft, more than a year before Pearl Harbor.
broadcast recordings of the series have survived, however
of its flavor
can be realized by reading Lair’s scripts in combination
with listeners written responses to what they heard. Particularly
notable overall, is Monday Night’s slower pace in contrast
to the boisterous Renfro Valley Barn Dance that had been
heard Saturday evenings on Cincinnati’s WLW since 1937.
|Lair shifted the Monday night action from the
Valley’s barn-like auditorium to the restored Red Bud
Schoolhouse that during his childhood, had been the scene of
political rallies, elections, preaching services, and traveling
shows. From this much smaller structure, he and his performers
played to unseen listeners before their radios at home instead
of the large face-to-face audiences that gathered for the Barn
Dance stage shows.
Lair said that on the Monday night program, he was trying
to show his
listeners “a little glimpse of life down here in the Hill Country, among
real folks.” On the first program August 5, 1940, he urged listeners to "please
don't think of what you'll hear tonight as a radio program.” Rather, it
was a weekly, neighborhood get-together where Valley residents could "talk
over old times, air our views on present day happenin's, an’ try to figger
out ways to help each other along a road that has always bin a rocky one to travel
fer us mountain folks."
He said the program’s
British owned sponsor, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company,
saw in the weekly get-togethers “a steadying glimpse
of pioneer America” that would help listeners face up
to the frightful prospects arising from German war making.
As the program
came on the air, discussion of community concerns was portrayed
ending, thus leaving plenty of time for singing old songs and
hearing stories about the real life people and events that
inspired their writing. For listeners "shut up in a hot,
noisy city” there was also the "music" of the
katydids “that lulls us to sleep down here…ever
night,” readily heard through one of the school house’s
refused to refer to the music he featured as “hillbilly.” It
was instead, “early American” or “home
(He said the songs) “tell a
story of heroic min er wimmin--true stories of hardships
an' perils an' joys an' sorrow that were a part of the
every day life of those who made this country what it is.
It's part of the great American Tradition--an' we think
down here in Renfro Valley that American Traditions are
worth keepin' and passin' on to future generations... " One
of the purposes in these meetins, right frum the start,
wuz to try to teach you young folks to appreciate songs
with a soul to ‘em."
his stories about the songs he told of both Black and white
songwriters, ex-slaves “fightin' fer a place in the
economic set-up," pioneers, cowboys, gold miners, outlaws,
and U.S. presidents. Oft repeated themes were the value of
hard work, the necessity of patriotic sacrifice, and the
nurture provided by home, school, and church, He was particularly
concerned that these stories would help foster among young
people in the audience a “finer appreciation of the
hardships an’ joys of a pioneer generation” …making
them see that “America and American Ways were too dearly
bought to be easily given away.”
He heightened the program’s nostalgia
value further by combining songs and narrative to recreate
such days-gone-by, labor-sharing and social events as a corn
shucking, candy pulling, apple cutting, quilting bee, and
bean stringing. Particularly ambitious would be remote broadcasts
from the scenes of an actual possum hunt, fish fry, and hayride.
program’s entertainment and inspirational aspects,
its commercial mission was critically important for attracting
more paying customers to Lair’s music oriented tourist
complex that he had opened ten months previously in 1939.
Although WLW's broadcasts of The Barn Dance were
generating considerable visitor traffic, income was not
to repay his startup borrowings and clear a healthy profit.
on to boost sails of Brown and Williamson’s newly
introduced Big Ben Pipe and Cigarette Tobacco meant both money
to pay performers and exposure of the Renfro Valley name and personalities
on twelve additional NBC stations scattered across the south and
west. WLW and stations in Atlanta, Dallas, Tulsa, and San Antonio,
were 50,000-watt operations, a feature that ensured wide-ranging,
interference-free nighttime coverage.
mail from twenty of the thirty-six states Lair heard from provides
regarding audience demographics.
Although the sponsor decided that not enough listeners were being
attracted to warrant continuing the series another season, the
mail suggests that the program’s rural setting, folksy format,
and Lair’s vision of a “steadying glimpse of pioneer
America” weren’t without commercial promise.
for Lair’s Monday Night approach came in 1943
in the form of a Sunday morning program on CBS for Louisville's
Ballard Mills, makers of Ballard's Obelisk Flour, a popular
household staple across the south. The setting remained a weekly,
in the Red Bud Schoolhouse with old songs, reminiscences of days
gone by, and uplifting words for harrowing times. Only the name
was changed to simply the Renfro Valley Gatherin'.
of Lair’s Monday
Night type program enjoyed wide popularity, staying on network
radio well into the 1950s. Early in the 2000s, it continues on
many independent stations as a promotional feature for the
present day Renfro Valley organization.
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