Accession Number: 66
The John Lair Papers
35.7 Linear feet
Catalog Record (BANC)
Overview & Series Description
Series I - John Lair - Biographical
Series II - Business Correspondence
Series III - Performer Correspondence and Biographical
Series IV - Published Material
Series V - Songs
Series VI - Radio Program Scripts
Series VII - Listener Mail
Series VIII - Photographs
Overview of the Collection
These are the papers of John Lee Lair, pioneer country music broadcaster, music
collector, and community historian. They consist mainly of business correspondence,
mail from radio listeners, photographs, radio program scripts, and broadcast
recordings. Included as well are printed promotional material, news clippings,
performer repertoire lists, and oral history transcripts.
John Lair was born in Rockcastle County, Kentucky on July 1, 1894. His father
was a farmer and Lair attended a one-room school before going on to finish
high school in the county seat town of Mount Vernon. After army service in
World War One, he worked in a variety of jobs that included teaching school
and editing a small-town newspaper. Work as an insurance company claims adjuster
brought him to Chicago in the late 1920s where he became interested in radio.
He was able to find work for early Kentucky country music performers such as
Red Foley and the duo of Carl and Harty on the WLS National Barn Dance and
eventually was employed by WLS as producer, MC, and Music Librarian. He became
particularly interested in discovering the real life events upon which old
songs were based. In the process he began accumulating a large sheet music
collection and gained a reputation as an authority on folk music. He wrote
songs of his own as well, including "Take Me Back to Renfro Valley," "Freight
Train Blues," "Only One Step More," and "The Man Who Comes Around."
While at WLS, he began thinking of having a radio barn dance program of his
own. Instead of another city location, he planned to stage his show in an actual
barn in his Rockcastle County home community of Renfro Valley. His first step
in this undertaking was moving from WLS to Cincinnati's WLW where he started
the Renfro Valley Barn Dance (sound
files). While developing a Renfro
Valley radio identity on WLW, Lair set about building his Kentucky country
that eventually opened in 1939. It included a barn-like auditorium, the one-room
log school of his youth, and restored, water driven gristmill. There was also
a rustic appearing but newly built restaurant, gift shop, U.S. Post Office,
and overnight cabins. Later there would a pioneer museum and old fashioned
country store. Beginning in 1944 Lair began publishing a monthly newspaper,
the Renfro Valley Bugle. In addition to news of his radio programs
and performers, he wrote extensively about Rockcastle County history.
His radio programs were heavy on comedy, turn-of-the-century sentimental songs,
old English ballads, and rural string band music. The programs he is best known
for are the Saturday night Renfro Valley Barn Dance (sound
files), Monday Night
at Renfro Valley, and the Sunday morning Renfro Valley Gatherin'
heard widely on WLW and later Louisville's WHAS through the mid 1950s. Monday
Night at Renfro Valley was on NBC from August 1940 through April 1941.
The Gatherin', started
in 1943, was carried by WHAS and the CBS Network through about 1960. Weekday
morning programs included The Renfro Valley Breakfast Party (sound
files) and The
Renfro Valley Country Store (sound
music and Lair's low key commercial delivery attracted a large radio audience
in the Midwest, northeast and upper south. On weekends, visitors
came from great distances to attend the broadcast stage performances and to
enjoy the Valley's up-to-date facilities and serene atmosphere. His performers
were also in great demand for shows at schools, movie theaters, and county
fairs. During much of the 1940s he kept a tent show on the road from May to
October that ranged all the way from Georgia to upper New York State and parts
of New England.
advent of television in the early 1950s made it increasingly difficult
for Lair to find sponsors for his radio programs on national networks.
The result was that the Renfro Valley Barn Dance became a non-broadcast
stage attraction. However the Gatherin' continued to be heard via recorded
versions distributed to individual radio stations. Lair sold his Renfro
Valley holdings to Nashville music publisher, Hal Smith in 1968. He eventually
came to regret this decision and, with the help of Glenn Pennington and
Alfa Smith, repurchased Renfro Valley in 1976. A few years later, though,
Lair's failing health forced his final retirement. Up to and for a while
after his death on November 12, 1985, various family members managed the
facility. In 1989 the Lair family sold their Renfro Valley interests to
a Lexington, Kentucky group of investors who updated and expanded the operation,
and renamed it, the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center. In July 2000 the
entire operation was made a gift to the nonprofit corporation that is developing
a Kentucky country music hall of fame and museum.
Related Berea College Archives
Bradley Kincaid Papers, SAA 13
Lair - Renfro Valley Barn Dance Oral History Collection, SAA 95
75 Manuscript Boxes; 4 Oversize
||John Lair - Biographical
This series consists of newspaper clippings, other printed material, and transcripts
of oral history interviews.
This series includes correspondence (1930 to 1981) with business associates,
job seekers, booking agencies, sponsors, advertising agencies, and radio stations.
Other topics are gospel quartet contests, establishment of a Renfro Valley pioneer
museum, and publishing projects including a hymnbook, almanac, and Lair's book
about Abraham Lincoln's favorite songs.
||Performer Correspondence and Biographical Material
This series includes performer correspondence, repertoire lists, management contracts,
press releases, and advertising material.
This series includes mostly published songbooks and historical writing by John
Lair. There is also an extensive collection of the WLS weekly program guide,
Standby, for the years 1937-1939 and a few issues of the monthly, Renfro Valley
This series consists of material relating to songs John Lair composed or arranged
and his research regarding the origins of several popular songs from the late
1800s and early 1900s.
This series contains scripts Lair wrote for his programs on WLS, WLW, and WHAS.
This series includes mainly letters to Lair from radio listeners and / or readers
of the Renfro Valley Bugle (1931-1984). Topics of particular interest are what
listeners thought about his programs, information on song texts, and items on
display in the Renfro Valley Pioneer Museum.
This series consists of about 450 photographs of Renfro Valley performers,
events, and buildings. In addition to the folder lists found in this guide,
are searchable via an in-house database.
This material includes fifty sound recordings of Renfro Valley radio programs
(1937 through the 1960s), five videos of Renfro Valley television and movie productions,
and sixty audio recordings of oral history interviews with performers and other
Lair associates. Performers and song titles are searchable via an in-house database.
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