Hutchins Library
Special Collections & Archives
Guide to the John Lair Papers
Photo of John Lair - 1940s

Accession Number: 66
The John Lair Papers
Papers: 1930-1984
Audio/Visual: 1937-1999
35.7 Linear feet
Online Catalog Record (BANC)

Overview & Series Description
Series I - John Lair - Biographical
Series II - Business Correspondence
Series III - Performer Correspondence and Biographical Material
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 music tourist complex 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' (sound files). The Barn Dance was 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 files). The music and Lair's low key commercial delivery attracted a large radio audience especially 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.

The 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
John Lair - Renfro Valley Barn Dance Oral History Collection, SAA 95

Series Description
75 Manuscript Boxes; 4 Oversize

Series I John Lair - Biographical Boxes 1-2  

This series consists of newspaper clippings, other printed material, and transcripts of oral history interviews.

Series II Business Correspondence   Boxes 3-18

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.

Series III Performer Correspondence and Biographical Material Boxes 19-22

This series includes performer correspondence, repertoire lists, management contracts, press releases, and advertising material.

Series IV Published Material Boxes 23-27  

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 Bugle.

Series V Songs Boxes 28-30

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.
Series VI Radio Program Scripts Boxes 31-69

This series contains scripts Lair wrote for his programs on WLS, WLW, and WHAS.

Series VII   Listener Mail Boxes 70-76 

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.

Series VIII Photographs Boxes 77-79 

This series consists of about 450 photographs of Renfro Valley performers, events, and buildings. In addition to the folder lists found in this guide, the contents are searchable via an in-house database.

Non-manuscript material:

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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