Monday, October 27, 2008

Coon Creek Girls: Renfro Valley


On the left is a photo of the Coon Creek Girls, now a trio, playing on stage in Renfro Valley, Kentucky.

Renfro Valley and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance were created by John Lair after John and Lula Renfro, the first settlers in Lair’s Kentucky home area in Rockcastle County.

It's important to know that these events directly shaped bluegrass music. Karl and Harty and WLS were imortant influences on the Monroe Brothers and Bill Monroe in particular, who impressed the duo with his fast mandolin playing. More on the Monroes in future blogs.

John Lair was born on July 1, 1894 in Rockcastle County, Kentucky. 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 I, 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.

Around 1930 WLS management was looking to form a new stringband for The Barn Dance radio show and asked John Lair, who was working in advertising to help. Lair who played jug, harmonica and wrote songs excelled at finding talent and then organizing and promoting this talent.

He formed the the first and most famous edition of the Cumberland Ridge Runners, by combining Karl Davis and Hartford Taylor (Karl and Harty and also performed under the name of the Renfro Valley Boys) with banjo and guitar player Hugh Cross and a fiddler named Homer Miller who was known for off-the-wall antics. Cross was already a well-established country crooner and collaborator on the earliest recordings of songs such as "Red River Valley" and "Wabash Cannonball." Lair created a hillbilly image for the outfit, dressing them all in checked shirts, straw and overalls. A famous photograph of them shows them in front of what looks like a rustic log cabin, but was actually a replica of Fort Dearborn created for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

A red-haired vocalist and bassist named Clyde Foley was hired to take part in comical sketches with Miller as well as play music; he soon changed his name to Red Foley and went on to become a huge country star. Another featured part of the group for a time was singer and banjo player Linda Parker, also known as "The Sunbonnet Girl." She was really forced to ham-up the hillbilly part and was always dressed onstage in a frilly gingham dress.

Lair eventually was employed by WLS as producer, emcee, and music librarian. As Lair became interested in discovering the real life events upon which old songs were based, he began accumulating a large sheet music collection and gained a reputation as an authority on folk music.

In the fall of 1937 John Lair joined forces with Red Foley, Whitey Ford the Duke of Paducah, and Chicago advertising executive Freeman Keyes to launch the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, which broadcast from Cincinnati over WLW. Lily May Leford (Coon Creek Girls), Dolly and Millie Good, and Red Foley were some of the stars that moved with Lair to Cincinnati and he also added the Duke of Paducah and Aunt Idy (with Little Clifford) to his show. Lair was trying to recreate the music found in his Kentucky homeland instead of the Western and cowboy trends that had recently become popular on the WLS Barn Dance.

Lair was planning to move the Renfro Valley show to his home home in Rockcastle County, KY. He was investing money from his sucessful show on WLW into building cabins, a restaurant (the lodge) with southern home-style meals, a souvenir shop, a candy kitchen, a barn for performances and a country store in Renfro Valley.

Move to Renfro Valley Kentucky "where time stands still"

By November 1939 construction was completed and Lair moved the Renfro Valley Barn Dance Show to its final home in Renfro Valley Kentucky. Not everyone in the Renfro Valley Barn Dance Show wanted to move to a remote area in Kentucky. Lair’s original partners Red Foley and Whitey Ford didn’t stay long. They sold their interests and went back to WLS Chicago. Another star A’nt Idy wouldn’t go at first and then only stayed a short while.

The original Coon Creek Girls split up. Daisy and Violet went with the Callahan Brothers, Howdy Forester, and Georgia Slim to Tulsa, Oklahoma and then to Dallas, Texas. According to Daisy, they were ready for a taste of "big city life." For a while Lily May played with the Amburbey Sisters: Berthy Amburgey (Berthy Woodruff, aka, Minnie), Irene Amburgey (Martha Carson, aka, Martha), and Opal Jean Amburgey (Jean Chapel, aka, Mattie), born in that order, as the Coon Creek Girls.
Soon Lily May and her sister Rosie added a younger Ledford sister to their act, Minnie (stage name "Black-eyed Susie" or "Susie" for short) and continued as the Coon Creek Girls. To replace some of the talent he lost, Lair hired two of the best musicians and comedians of the Barn Dance era, Homer and Jethro.

From the first Saturday night the venture was a moderate success. In spite of dire predictions and Lair moving at the onset of winter, the crowds got bigger and bigger. Radio experts who had held that people wouldn't drive a hundred miles or more to see a barn dance out in the country were amazed. All winter long the crowds kept coming from unbelievable distances and when spring brought ideal traveling weather; all roads seemed to lead to Renfro Valley. License plates from as many as fifteen different states were found on a single Saturday night.

Lair’s dream had come true, much to the appreciation of audience members who filled the auditorium and the many thousands of radio listeners. Lair functioned on stage as emcee and guided the program, song by song, week by week and it was broadcast on radio station WHAS in Louisville. After the departure of partners Red Foley and Whitey Ford, Lair now controlled every facet of the performer’s lives.

"John Lair, once he moved to Renfro Valley," said Lily May’s daughter Barbara Greenlief in a 1996 interview, "had them sign contracts that they couldn't record anything unless he said so; they couldn't talk to other people, they couldn't make any other deals. I mean he—the contracts were just—he owned them."

The barn could comfortably hold about 800 people. Some weekends thousands would flock to the small valley. The two scheduled shows on a Saturday night could not accommodate everyone. "They (Shorty Hobbs and Little Elder Long) and the Homer and Jethro team simply tore up the stage encore after encore," recalled Lily May. "Crowds started flocking in the barn at 5 or 6:00 and they were doing shows ‘til the roosters were crowing at daybreak."

More on the Coon Creek Girls and Lily May later,


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