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John Lair Papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: BCA 0066 SAA 066

Scope and Contents

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.

Listen to Radio Recordings and / or Read Play Lists


  • created: 1930-1999


Conditions Governing Access

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

Conditions Governing Use

Federal copyright regulations apply to all materials.

Biographical Note

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.

Kentucky Encyclopedia biography: 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


80.00 boxes_(general)

Language of Materials



The John Lair papers document the life of country music broadcaster, music collector, and community historian John Lee Lair (1894-1985).

Arrangement Note

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

Other Descriptive Information

BCA 0066 SAA 066

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.

John Lair papers
A Finding Aid
Harry Rice
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Berea College Special Collections and Archives Repository

Hutchins Library
100 Campus Drive
Berea Kentucky 40404 US