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John Lair Papers

Overview

Abstract

Scope and Contents

Biographical Note

Administrative Information

Detailed Description

John Lair - Biographical

Business Correspondence

Performer Correspondence and Biographical Material

Published Material

Songs

Radio Program Scripts

Listener Mail

Photographs

Audio-Visual Material and Recordings



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John Lair Papers, 1930-1999 | Berea College Special Collections and Archives Catalog

By Harry Rice

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Collection Overview

Title: John Lair Papers, 1930-1999Add to your cart.

Primary Creator: Lair, John -- 1894-1985

Extent: 80.0 Boxes (General)

Arrangement:

Arrangement of the collection is by series:

1. John Lair - Biographical

2. Business Correspondence

3. Performer Correspondence and Biographical Material

4. Published Material

5. Songs

6. Radio Program Scripts

7. Listener Mail

8. Photographs

9. Audio-Visual Material

Subjects: Country music -- Kentucky -- Renfro Valley -- History., Lair, John., National Barn Dance (Radio program)., Renfro Valley Barn Dance (Radio program) -- History., Renfro Valley Gatherin' (Radio program), Rockcastle County (Ky.) -- History.

Languages: English

Abstract

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.  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 two programs he is best known for are the Saturday night Renfro Valley Barn Dance and Sunday morning Renfro Valley Gatherin’.  The Barn Dance was heard widely on WLW and later Louisville’s WHAS.  The Gatherin’, started in 1943, was carried by WHAS and the CBS Network. Less well known was Monday Night at Renfro Valley which was heard on NBC only from August 1940 through April 1941.

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.

Scope and Contents of the Materials

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 in the collection are printed promotional material, news clippings, performer repertoire lists, oral history transcripts, and audio-visual materials.

Collection Historical Note

John Lee Lair, born July 1, 1894 in Renfro Valley, Kentucky; in first group of US Army enlistees from Rockcastle County for World War I, assigned to produce musical shows for servicemen; claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company in Louisville and Chicago; 1927 joined Chicago radio station WLS; 1937 he joined WLW in Cincinnati; died November 12, 1985 in Lexington.

Biographical Note

<span style="color: rgb(51, 51, 51); font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;">John Lee Lair, born July 1, 1894 in Renfro Valley, Kentucky; in first group of US Army enlistees from Rockcastle County for World War I, assigned to produce musical shows for servicemen; claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company in Louisville and Chicago; 1927 joined Chicago radio station WLS; 1937 he joined WLW in Cincinnati; died November 12, 1985 in Lexington</span>

Subject/Index Terms

Country music -- Kentucky -- Renfro Valley -- History.
Lair, John.
National Barn Dance (Radio program).
Renfro Valley Barn Dance (Radio program) -- History.
Renfro Valley Gatherin' (Radio program)
Rockcastle County (Ky.) -- History.

Administrative Information

Repository: Berea College Special Collections and Archives Catalog

Access Restrictions: Records can be accessed through the Reading Room, Berea College Special Collections and Archives, Hutchins Library, Berea College.

Use Restrictions: Federal copyright regulations apply to all materials.

Preferred Citation: [Object identification], John Lair Collection, Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea, KY.

Processing Information: The collection was processed by Harry Rice, Sound Archivist.  Finding aid was created by Harry Rice in 2003.  The finding aid was updated in January 2016 by Lori Myers-Steele, Collections Archivist, to reflect the addition of Series IX: Audio-Visual Materials.

Other Note: BCA 0066 SAA 066


Box and Folder Listing


Browse by Series:

[Series 1: John Lair - Biographical],
[Series 2: Business Correspondence],
[Series 3: Performer Correspondence and Biographical Material],
[Series 4: Published Material],
[Series 5: Songs],
[Series 6: Radio Program Scripts],
[Series 7: Listener Mail],
[Series 8: Photographs],
[Series 9: Audio-Visual Material and Recordings],
[All]

Series 7: Listener MailAdd to your cart.
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.
Box 70Add to your cart.
Folder 1: Listener Correspondence, n.d.Add to your cart.
Folder 2: WLS - Listener Mail, 1931Add to your cart.
Folder 3: WLS - Song Correspondence (I), 1935-1936Add to your cart.
Folder 4: WLS - Song Correspondence (II), 1936Add to your cart.
Folder 5: Bob Miller - "Charlie Brooks", 1936Add to your cart.
Folder 6: WLS - Song Correspondence, Bob Miller - "Little Red Caboose Behind the Train"Add to your cart.
Folder 7: WLS - Listener Mail - Hugh Cross - Lyrics, [1930s]Add to your cart.
Folder 8: WLS - Listener Mail, 1933-1936Add to your cart.
Folder 9: Listener Correspondence, December 1940- February 1941Add to your cart.
Folder 10: Listener Correspondence, Mar-41Add to your cart.
Folder 11: Pack Horse Library, 1941Add to your cart.
Folder 12: Listener Correspondence, 1941-1942Add to your cart.
Box 71Add to your cart.
Folder 1: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, January-September 1943Add to your cart.
Folder 2: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Sep-43Add to your cart.
Folder 3: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, October 1943 (I)Add to your cart.
Folder 4: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, October 1943 (II)Add to your cart.
Folder 5: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Nov-43Add to your cart.
Folder 6: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Dec-43Add to your cart.
Folder 7: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Jan-44Add to your cart.
Folder 8: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Feb-44Add to your cart.
Box 72Add to your cart.
Folder 1: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Mar-44Add to your cart.
Folder 2: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Apr-44Add to your cart.
Folder 3: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, May-44Add to your cart.
Folder 4: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Jun-44Add to your cart.
Folder 5: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Jul-44Add to your cart.
Folder 6: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Aug-44Add to your cart.
Folder 7: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, September / October 1944Add to your cart.
Folder 8: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Nov-44Add to your cart.
Folder 9: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Dec-44Add to your cart.
Folder 10: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail - Soldier and Children Poems, 1944Add to your cart.
Folder 11: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Jan-45Add to your cart.
Folder 12: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, Feb-45Add to your cart.
Folder 13: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, March-May 1945Add to your cart.
Box 73Add to your cart.
Folder 1: Misc. - Listener Mail, 1946Add to your cart.
Folder 2: Misc. - Listener Mail, 1947Add to your cart.
Folder 3: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, 1947Add to your cart.
Folder 4: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Correspondence, 1948Add to your cart.
Folder 5: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Correspondence, 1949Add to your cart.
Folder 6: Misc. - Listener Mail, [1946-1949]Add to your cart.
Folder 7: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, 1950Add to your cart.
Folder 8: Listener Correspondence - Positive Letters, 1951Add to your cart.
Folder 9: Permission File, 1951Add to your cart.
Box 74Add to your cart.
Folder 1: Misc. - Listener Mail, 1952Add to your cart.
Folder 2: Listener Correspondence - Positive Letters, 1952Add to your cart.
Folder 3: Misc. - Listener Mail, 1953Add to your cart.
Folder 4: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, 1954Add to your cart.
Folder 5: Poems - Lenora Purcell, 1955Add to your cart.
Folder 6: Listener Mail - Protest Letters, "Keep Renfro Valley Gatherin' On", 1955Add to your cart.
Folder 7: Listener Correspondence - Positive Letter, 1956 and undatedAdd to your cart.
Folder 8: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, 1957Add to your cart.
Folder 9: Misc. - Listener Mail, 1958Add to your cart.
Folder 10: Misc. - Listener Mail, 1959Add to your cart.
Folder 11: WCKY - Mail Report, 1960Add to your cart.
Folder 12: Misc. - Listener Mail, 1961Add to your cart.
Box 75Add to your cart.
Folder 1: Renfro Valley Barn Dance - Listener Mail, 1960-1961 (I)Add to your cart.
Folder 2: Renfro Valley Barn Dance - Listener Mail, 1960-1961 (II)Add to your cart.
Folder 3: Renfro Valley Barn Dance - Listener Mail War Antiquities, 1961Add to your cart.
Folder 4: Renfro Valley Barn Dance - Listener Mail Civil War Stories, etc. - 1961-64Add to your cart.
Folder 5: Renfro Valley Gatherin' Listener Mail, 1962Add to your cart.
Folder 6: Renfro Valley Gatherin' Listener Mail, 1963Add to your cart.
Folder 7: Misc. - Listener Mail - Scrapbook File, n.d.Add to your cart.
Folder 8: Renfro Valley Gatherin' Listener Mail, 1964Add to your cart.
Folder 9: Renfro Valley Gatherin' Listener Mail, 1965-1968Add to your cart.
Box 76Add to your cart.
Folder 1: Answered Listener Mail, 1975-1984Add to your cart.
Folder 2: Renfro Valley Gatherin' - Listener Mail, 1977-1978Add to your cart.

Browse by Series:

[Series 1: John Lair - Biographical],
[Series 2: Business Correspondence],
[Series 3: Performer Correspondence and Biographical Material],
[Series 4: Published Material],
[Series 5: Songs],
[Series 6: Radio Program Scripts],
[Series 7: Listener Mail],
[Series 8: Photographs],
[Series 9: Audio-Visual Material and Recordings],
[All]


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