Renfro Valley keeping music tradition alive with 77th season in 2016
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, sits one of the longest lasting barn dances in America. Renfro Valley Entertainment Center first opened in 1939 thanks to founder John Lair. Many from around the region would come and enjoy the weekly barn dances, as well as Gospel services.
Today, the entertainment complex host 4 weekly shows, as well as headliner concerts, gift shop village, and RV camping. In the fall, they host the Appalachian Harvest Festival Antique Tractor, Gas Engine, and Truck show with the Southeastern Kentucky Antique Gas Engine and Tractor Association.
I recently sat down with Jerred Harris, Sales and Marketing Coordinator, of Renfro Valley about new changes this year, as well as keeping the musical tradition alive. It is amazing that it is still one of the best family friendly places to see a concert. It is a dry county, so no alcohol is served at shows. Every show is fun for the entire family, and you can make a full weekend of entertainment.
This year in the Old Barn, there are 4 shows. There is a new Bluegrass and Classic Country Show, as well the Renfro Valley Bandstand. It is a variety music show that includes audience participation in what they would like to hear. Renfro Valley also continues to host their weekly Barn Dance, as well as Gospel Jubilee. The original Renfro Valley Barn Dance started in 1939 and was carried by WHAS-AM out of Louisville and WCKY-AM in Cincinnati. It is no longer on the radio, but fans can enjoy it live in person every Saturday night.
In the past, Renfro Valley hosted a Gathering Radio Show, which began in September of 1943 on the CBS Radio Network. It was the third oldest continually broadcast radio program in America – only the Grand Ole Opry and Music & the Spoken Word had been broadcasted longer. While it is no longer broadcasted on radio, archives of broadcasts are available to listen online at www.renfrovalley.com.
One of the legends of Renfro Valley was recently inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2015. Pete Stamper has been one of the longest performers at Renfro Valley. Stamper is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of Renfro Valley and Kentucky music. If you ever do get the opportunity to meet him, you will always learn something new.
2016 presented a very unique situation with two country music legends scheduled to perform. Don Williams was originally scheduled for two performances in April, but were moved into the fall. Unfortunately, due to health issues, Williams decided to retire from performing. He was always a long time staple performing at Renfro Valley. In April, just a move before he was to perform, country music lost Merle Haggard with his passing. Haggard was another long time performer at Renfro Valley over the years. Even though no one could ever fill his shoes, traditional country music singer, Josh Turner, filled in the date in May.
Each year, Renfro Valley brings out a variety of headliner concert series. One of the top returning acts is the Oak Ridge Boys – and is always a delight to see and hear Joe Bonsall talk stories along the way! Kentucky artists are featured yearly, including this year with Steve Wariner, Exile, Loretta Lynn, Wynonna, Chris Knight, and more.
Ironically, there are several that have never played at Renfro Valley. One of them being Dolly Parton. Another that has performed out in the festival field was Willie Nelson. Harris recalled, “I just recently found out that back a while ago that Willie Nelson actually was part owner of Renfro Valley. There were a group of businessmen that had a lease to own option. I guess when it ran out, Willie decided not to renew.” Now how wild would it have been if Willie Nelson continued to be owner?
This year, the shops in the village have grown to a wide variety of stores. The stores include the Grist Mill, an outdoors store, the Country Music Store, a vareity store, Divine Boutique, Long Rider Leather, as well as Oak Factory Furniture store. There will also be a Toys for Tots drop off area. For a quick bite, visitors can enjoy a premium sandwich at Valley Station. Just a tiny bit down the road is the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, opened on Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays. It is well worth seeing the exhibits portraying Kentucky’s rich musical past.
Renfro Valley employees 16 workers during the week and about 30 on the weekends when there are shows. Several workers have been there for over 20 years, continuing on the tradition of good quality family entertainment.
When asked why does he think Renfro Valley has lasted for 77 years, Harris replied, “I believe it is because of the family atmosphere. There are many things to offer beyond music, and it appeals to both young and old.” As far what does the future hold for Renfro Valley, Jerred said that “everyone has a passion for it and plan on keeping the tradition alive. We hope to have outdoor concerts, and possible continue doing the ghost tours in the fall.”
I highly encourage you to help keep the tradition alive and well here in southeast Kentucky. Go and patronize Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, whether it be a Headliner Concert, or even one of the old barn shows. It is rare to be able to see a Barn Dance these days, so be sure to take your family to show them a tradition that has lasted multiple generations.
For more information, be sure to check out www.renfrovalley.com. Also, be sure to check out the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum just a few steps away to learn more about Kentucky’s rich music heritage.
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website with over 20 years experience in music journalism, concert planning, photography, and promotion. Jessica is a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the 2019 Leadership Kentucky BRIGHT Class and a recipient of the Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award. Listen to her each week on WFKY on Friday mornings for the Nashville News Roundup.